Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says ‘inequality is a preexisting condition’ amid pandemic

The New York City congresswoman weighed in on the coronavirus pandemic’s disparate impact on minority communities, including her district.
7:48 | 04/15/20

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Transcript for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says ‘inequality is a preexisting condition’ amid pandemic
You represent the district of New York City that encompasses parts of queens, the bronx and has become the single hardest hit congressional district in the nation. It's an area that has heavily minority immigrants, working class and working poor. So how much clearer does it have to be in the country that this pandemic, while treating us all equally, killing us as it kills us, but why isn't there more emphasis on what's happening to poor people in this country? Of course. Well, you know, I think sometimes when -- when a pandemic like this hits or even any natural disaster like a hurricane, like what we saw in hurricane Katrina or hurricane Maria, they don't happen in a vacuum. They happen in a social and historical context, and when communities have already been made vulnerable by mass incarceration, when they have been -- when these things happen in the context of redlining, in wealth inequality, in a racial wealth gap, what it does is that it impacts the most vulnerable the most, and my congressional district, New York 14, out of the top ten most impacted zip codes in America, five of them are in my congressional district, including the top three, and what we're seeing is that the communities that are most impacted across the country are overwhelmingly working class, black and brown. In Chicago alone, 70% of the mortality are black Americans, and it just goes to show that these things do not happen in a vacuum. They -- they happen when communities are disproportion Natalie on the front line. Here in New York City, about 55% of our front line workers including grocery store workers, delivery workers and more, are black and brown. They're black and Latino and they're nonwhite, and they're working class, and they're being paid 10, 15 bucks an hour. They don't have health care, and so when your family is ravaged by a pandemic, you can't see a doctor. You're already -- your family's already operating in the context of public policies that don't really see the reality that our families are confronting, and so it's tragic, but it's also no surprise that it's impacting the vulnerable the most. Congresswoman, you know, the surgeon general suggested last week that African-Americans and Latinos should step up and stop behaviors like drinking and smoking to help curve the spread of coronavirus in their communities, and I thought his comment reinforced the notion that personal responsibility is to blame for the racial health disparity rather than systemic racism. What did you make of that? I completely agree. It's -- it's so funny how this pandemic was -- when it was impacting -- when it was impacting the elderly, when it was impacting all sorts of people, we didn't talk about personal responsibility. We only started talking about, you know, taking personal responsibility over contracting coronavirus when we started talking about black Americans contracting it at a higher rate. Obviously there are certain things we can do to make sure that pre-existing conditions don't exist, but ultimately, it's inequity that's the pre-existing condition. It's the inequality that's the pre-existing condition, and you can't just go to someone and tell them, hey. You should have had health care this whole time when you're working, you know, when you're working an hourly job and your employer doesn't give it to you. You know, a lot of these pre-existing conditions have to do with the inability to access quality health care, the inability to afford quality health care because we live in a country that continues to have a for-profit health care system unlike the rest of the developed world, and on top of that, you know, the bronx, we have a mortality rate that is twice -- we have a covid, coronavirus mortality rate that is twice the level of the rest of New York City. You know what's not a coincidence? The fact that the bronx has one of the highest asthma rates in the United States, and a lot of that has to do with environmental inequities that we -- oftentimes, just look at Flint. Just look at Baltimore. Just look at the bronx, that public policy has polluted these communities, has poisoned air and poisoned our water, and that is what is creating the large scale pre-existing conditions that are making our communities much more vulnerable than others, and so while yes, you know, if you are smoking, you should consider to stop, and that goes for everybody. At the end of the day, that's not why there is such a high incidence of coronavirus that is impacting these communities disproportionately. It is systemic inequality, and we have to take responsibility for those inequiies and we have to make sure we respond to it not with a personal choice, but with public policy. So I agree with you. This -- this pandemic interestingly enough has brought to the forefront that you have been your signature issues for a long time. Suddenly, everyone's a socialist. Even Republicans are on board with some of these measures. Things like paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, free testing and health coverage. It's interesting, isn't it? How they've all come on your team all of a sudden. What do you think will be the long-term effects of the democratic socialist agenda? I think, you know, it is a funny moment because everyone wants to fight against these policies until they have been personally impacted, and we've seen this not just economically, but we've also seen it in terms of social rights as well, you know? There are so many people that were against lgbt marriage equality until they realized, oh, wait. My friend, my son, my daughter, my, you know, my loved ones have come out of the closet, and I think that vulnerability, that personal vulnerability, really brings a lot of people around, and what we're seeing right now is that guaranteeing health care in this country is not about giving charity to people. It affects all of us. When the person who is preparing your food and serves you food, cannot have -- cannot see a doctor, that puts you at ri. That puts all of us at risk, and, you know, I think it's encouraging that a lot of people are seeing -- are saying, oh, you know what? Because this is an emergency, we should shore up, and make sure people have enough to pay their rent. Because this is an emergency, we should make sure that people can have access to a free test and go to a doctor, but ultimately, the question is wasn't this an emergency before? You know, if you needed treatment, and you need life-saving treatment for coronavirus, and you think that that testing and treatment should be free, then why shouldn't that testing and treatment for diabetes, insulin, cancer, why wouldn't we be treating all sick people in this country as humanely as everybody else? Very good.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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