• Black Americans are nearly twice as likely to live in areas that would be disproportionately disrupted by a health crisis like COVID-19.

• A median white family’s wealth is 10 times that of a median Black family.

• Addressing the racial wealth gap could increase US GDP by 4-6% by 2028.

• Only 20% of Black workers are able to work from home during the current crisis.

In a recent interview, Harvard University behavioural scientist Dr. David R. Williams commented that, “The coronavirus did not create racial inequities in health. It has just uncovered and revealed them. These disparities have long existed in the US, and persist across leading causes of death, from the cradle to the grave.”

One inequality that the pandemic had laid bare, and that is significantly impacting health outcomes, is America’s wealth gap between white and Black Americans. In 2016, the wealth of a median white family was 10 times that of a median Black family, and a Black family was two times more likely to live in poverty than its white counterpart. That massive gap weighs heavily on the prospects of Black Americans; it is estimated that some 70% of Black children who grow up middle class will not achieve middle-class status as adults.

The tragic irony of this situation is that eliminating the racial wealth gap would actually present a tremendous opportunity for the overall US economy. Currently, in terms of consumption and investment, the racial wealth gap could negatively impact the economy by between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion between 2019 and 2028. On the flipside, if the racial wealth gap were to be addressed, US GDP could increase from 4-6% by 2028, potentially adding $2,900-$4,399 in per capita GDP, which is comparable to the explosive economic growth the US experienced during the dotcom era of the 1990s.

COVID-19 underscores systemic racial disparities

The pandemic has brought into stark relief many of the issues and disparities that created and continue to perpetuate the racial wealth gap. Decades of racism and persistent systemic inequalities not only make Black Americans more vulnerable to the effects of the virus, but also make it even harder for them to fight against the impact of the virus. In addition, not only was the impact of COVID-19 on the lives and livelihoods of Black Americans predictable, but also it uncovered greater disparities than we had previously understood.

To begin with, Black Americans are nearly two times as likely to live in areas that would be disproportionately disrupted by a health crisis like COVID-19. That is true in part because the majority of Black Americans live in areas with substandard access to quality healthcare and public health services. In addition, Black Americans disproportionately reside where air quality levels are poor, which becomes a major risk factor when dealing with a respiratory disease like COVID-19.

What most Black Americas do for a living is also a major factor in how they are being impacted by the coronavirus. While many American workers are working from home to avoid exposure, Black Americans are much less likely to be able to take advantage of this new workplace dynamic: Only 20% of Black workers are able to work from home in the current situation, as compared to 30% of white workers and 37% of Asian workers.

COVID-19 has impacted Black Americans hardest
COVID-19 has impacted Black Americans hardest

More Black jobs are high-contact and high-risk

One reason that few Black Americans can work from home during the pandemic is that they represent a disproportionate percentage of nine of the 10 lowest-wage jobs that are deemed to be high-contact, essential services. Of particular concern is the fact that many of those jobs are front-line healthcare positions, meaning Black Americans are being put at a much greater risk of contracting the virus just by the work they perform, which is work that helps treat and protect others from the virus.

These, and other issues, also predispose Black Americans to medical conditions that greatly increase the risks associated with COVID-19. Black Americans are 30% more likely to suffer from co-morbidities including cardiovascular disease, asthma, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, hypertension and obesity.

The totality of those factors has created an incredibly dire situation for the lives and livelihoods of many Black Americans in the wake of COVID-19. Fortunately, solutions exist that can fundamentally change these situations for the better, including:

• Community health workers can be trained and deployed in high-risk areas in order to connect patients to appropriate healthcare and social services, as well as helping to rebuild trust in the overall healthcare system.

• The expiration of federal support could devastate minority communities, which means actions including moratoriums on evictions, unemployment insurance and hazard pay must be extended for those hardest hit.

• Faith-based organizations can redouble their efforts to teach effective prevention measures including proper hygiene techniques and social distancing.

• Employers can have a transformative and tangible impact by giving hazard pay that is more reflective of the risks front-line workers are taking, as well as increasing those incentives for employees from more vulnerable populations.

• Employers can also expand healthcare benefits, subsidize access to protective equipment and develop relationships with businesses like hotels that can provide increased protection to at-risk staff.

• Public-private partnerships can be developed to give vulnerable populations more access to primary care physicians.

• Public-private partnerships can also help increase access to broadband, giving needy Black Americans the opportunity to benefit from expanding telehealth services.

• Better and more equitable access to broadband will also enable more Black families to take better advantage of remote learning opportunities to make sure their children do not lose ground academically during the pandemic.

• Any COVID-19-induced recession will also disproportionately impact the economic viability of many Black Americans. To ensure more at-risk individuals do not experience financial calamity, both private- and public-sector organizations can offer significantly more low-interest liquidity to Black households. These efforts could include flexible repayment programs and credit forgiveness for periods of time that allow individuals to get back on their feet as the country reopens and their ability to earn a living returns. Long-term rent support and moratoriums on foreclosures could also help protect those at risk.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle racial injustice and inequality. In response, the Forum's Platform for Shaping the Future of the New Economy and Society has established a high-level community of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers. The community will develop a vision, strategies and tools to proactively embed equity into the post-pandemic recovery and shape long-term inclusive change in our economies and societies.

As businesses emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, they have a unique opportunity to ensure that equity, inclusion and justice define the "new normal" and tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity. It is increasingly clear that new workplace technologies and practices can be leveraged to significantly improve diversity, equity and inclusion outcomes.

The World Economic Forum has developed a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Toolkit, to outline the practical opportunities that this new technology represents for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, while describing the challenges that come with it.

The toolkit explores how technology can help reduce bias from recruitment processes, diversify talent pools and benchmark diversity and inclusion across organisations. The toolkit also cites research that suggests well-managed diverse teams significantly outperform homogenous ones over time, across profitability, innovation, decision-making and employee engagement.

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Toolkit is available here.

The economic legacy of COVID-19 has been devastating for Black Americans, further increasing the racial wealth divide and aggravating historic issues that have made it more difficult for Black Americans to thrive. That cannot be allowed to continue. More must be done to invest in communities to continue to save lives, enhance livelihoods and reimagine more inclusive systems where these disparities don’t exist in the first place.