How Black Women Have Been Getting Us Through the Pandemic

When I think back over how I’ve been getting through the pandemic, I often think of my mother. Her persistence, caring and love for our family kept us all going. Many of us in the Crescent City likely feel the same. Because my mother, like so many other Black women during this crisis, was not only at the front lines as a physical therapist assistant in a nursing home but did much the same at home caring for my grandmother and niece. 

It goes without saying that the spread of COVID-19 changed all of our lives in ways few of us could have imagined when New Orleans experienced its first reported cases following Mardi Gras in 2020. While we have all made sacrifices by working from home, staying in lock down, wearing masks everywhere we go, truth be told, some of us have been putting their health and safety on the line more than the rest of us.  

Though balancing responsibilities at work while being the primary caretaker at home, is the norm for many women; doing so at increased personal risk, while navigating a pandemic environment with less access to child-care is unprecedented. 

Recent research from the Data Center confirms this. While women of color currently make up approximately 24% of the total workforce in the city, they are over-represented in the low-wage essential workforce, making up 41% of those workers. Women like my mother are also more likely to be employed in frontline health care and retail jobs, where they are much more likely to be exposed to the virus.

Further, 33% of essential workers have children under 18, compared to 28 % of workers as a whole in the city of New Orleans. As it relates to childcare needs, 20% of essential workers have children under 10, which is particularly important as they continue to work outside the home while schools are closed. Additionally, 18 percent of essential workers in the metro area live with someone over the age of 60, meaning that they also need to make themselves available for their care.

This is exactly what my mother has been doing. While all of my family have been safe and healthy, knowing that she was spending all of her working hours on the frontlines protecting the most vulnerable has been stressful. No doubt not all families have been as lucky as ours has been. Though our family is solidly middle class, many families in the Crescent City rely on social safety nets much more so than we do and we need to do the work to protect them.  

Compared to other essential workers, women of color face serious constraints accessing affordable housing and food, particularly as housing prices in the city have increased. Further, in the previous year, 20% of the women of color in essential jobs had used SNAP food assistance.

While we all live in a city with a female black mayor, we don’t need to look to City Hall to see how black female leadership has gotten us through this crisis. We see it every day in our hospitals, restaurants, schools etc.

Throughout this pandemic, doctors and nurses have been getting plenty of attention for caring for, and treating folks with or without COVID-19, but all too often, those who keep medical staff safe have been overlooked. Housekeeping staff at hospitals and other care centers, who earn lower wages and are often black and brown, have in many ways been the “hidden heroes” during this pandemic. In particular, because not only has the importance of their work been elevated during this crisis, but because the need for it has expanded and increased to such a great extent.

The fundamental fact of this crisis in this city is that most of the people who have died of COVID-19 are black. The Mayor of this city, who also happens to be a black woman, has stated that the “data will drive the reopeningOur hope is that given the disproportionate impact on communities of color, that the data will drive our recovery as well and look to most support our most vulnerable as well as those who take care of them.  

It’s been more than fifteen years since hurricane Katrina hit our shores and changed the history of this city forever. During those fifteen years, the Crescent City has bounced back, but not in any equitable fashion. Poor black families have been pushed out of the city while being unable to benefit from the economic growth New Orleans has seen. 

In the longer term, as we look to recover from this crisis, one would hope that any recovery plan would be centered on our most vulnerable who stewarded us through all of this by ensuring access to food, housing, and childcare. While we should all commend Mayor Cantrell and Governor Edwards for their leadership during this time, I would hope that we could count on them to ensure that they use whatever levers they can to ensure that black women and our most vulnerable benefit from any post-crisis initiatives.

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