The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed health systems around the globe, and intensified the lethality of social and political inequality. In the United States, where public health departments have been severely defunded, Black, Native, Latinx communities and those experiencing poverty in the country’s largest cities are disproportionately infected and disproportionately dying. Based on our collective ethnographic work in three global cities in the U.S. (San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Detroit), we identify how the political geography of racialisation potentiated the COVID-19 crisis, exacerbating the social and economic toll of the pandemic for non-white communities, and undercut the public health response. Our analysis is specific to the current COVID19 crisis in the U.S, however the lessons from these cases are important for understanding and responding to the corrosive political processes that have entrenched inequality in pandemics around the world.