The Impact of COVID-19 on Underserved Communities

This mural, “Una Gota Rompe la Piedra,” by artist Lunar New Year, is located in New Brunswick’s Esperanza Neighborhood, an area of the city with 11,000 residents. Over 84 percent of the residents are Hispanic and 52 percent are foreign born, and the median household income is around $40,000. Photo: New Brunswick Tomorrow

New Jersey has been hit hard by COVID-19, and more challenges loom as coronavirus cases are climbing nationwide. While no one is immune to the pandemic and its related hardships, low-income and minority communities are disproportionately suffering in many aspects.

Richard Marlink, the director of Rutgers Global Health Institute who has worked extensively to confront issues of health equity both in the United States and around the world, discusses the complex obstacles facing low-income and minority communities and why helping everyone recover is important for New Jersey.

How has COVID-19 disproportionately impacted low-income and minority communities in New Jersey?
Even before the pandemic hit, there were many health disparities in New Jersey. This is a state where extremely wealthy suburban towns are in close proximity to poor, urban areas, where minority populations are most heavily concentrated.

In communities where you have a high percentage of people living in poverty, in substandard housing, with inferior educational opportunities, and lacking access to proper nutrition and quality health care, you are likely to see more chronic diseases, such as asthma, hypertension and diabetes. All of these conditions are risk factors for severe illness or death from COVID-19.

Sadly, that’s what we’re seeing play out, now. Data from the CDC shows that certain minority groups, such as Blacks and Hispanics, bear more than their share of the burden of COVID-19 infection and severe illness, reflected in rates of hospitalizations and deaths.

How has the economic fallout from the pandemic compounded these issues?
The pandemic has created economic hardships for many families. People have lost their jobs or their hours are getting cut or their opportunities are severely limited. Even those who weren’t in poverty before are now finding themselves unable to afford food, health care, prescription medications or rent because of these new circumstances. Mental health is a huge concern, as well, and substance abuse is rising.

Many low-income workers have no choice but to work outside of the home, risking infection. They are in jobs that can’t be done remotely, and they are more likely to rely on public transportation, as well. These factors are putting already vulnerable people into really trying situations.

What business sectors are especially vulnerable?
Small businesses are in peril all over the country, threatening not only individual families and livelihoods, but the very fabric of communities. There is data to support that Black- and Hispanic-owned businesses are in really dire straits.

One reason for this is that minority-owned businesses are heavily concentrated in hard-hit industries, such as the service sector. Another is that these businesses were in a weaker financial position to begin with. Due to complex structural challenges, minority-owned businesses have more difficulty obtaining loans, for example. Unfortunately, these same difficulties have also impacted their ability to take advantage of federal relief programs.

In addition, for some small businesses, language barriers make it impossible to know what the latest public health guidelines are or what government assistance is available, much less implement those guidelines or apply for assistance.

What can be done to help these vulnerable businesses and communities survive the pandemic and ultimately recover?
Since poverty and poor health are inextricably linked, getting people back to work safely is vital for many reasons. Low-income and minority communities need targeted outreach and help implementing public health measures that can protect businesses, employees and customers.

Channeling our attention into getting these small businesses — and, therefore, their communities —back on their feet would be good for the whole economy, and good for getting the pandemic back under control in New Jersey.

But recovery from COVID-19 isn’t only about improving the economy and controlling the spread of a virus. It’s also about ensuring that the individuals and communities who have suffered the most can firmly recover from this pandemic and be more resilient in the future. The challenge before us now is to create the conditions that make good health possible for all people. Our response to this challenge will truly be a measure of our humanity.

See how Rutgers is making a difference during the COVID-19 crisis.