For many Americans, the coronavirus was a subject that seemed more abstract than something we should have been preparing for months in advance.
The nation’s outlook on the virus steadily changed in February when a limited number of positive cases were found in some states, and stories about how other countries were reeling from the virus’ outbreak were reported by popular media outlets. Today, the United States has more confirmed coronavirus cases than anywhere in the world and the most deaths, according to the coronavirus case counter by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
A harsh reality that is difficult to ignore is how hard the coronavirus has hit African Americans especially.
Counties that have a majority of black residents have triple the rate of infections and almost six times the rate of deaths compared to counties that are majority white, according to a Washington Post data analysis of available data census demographics. In Wisconsin’s largest city — Milwaukee — black Americans account for 73% of deaths when they are only 26% of the population. In the state of Louisiana, African Americans are 70% of the deaths while only being 32% of the population. Out of Chicago’s 118 reported coronavirus deaths as of April 7, 67% of the deaths were from African Americans even though they make up 32% of the population. And as reported by The New York Times, “The coronavirus is killing black and Latino people in New York City at twice the rate that it is killing white people,” according to preliminary data released by the city on April 8. It should be noted that only some areas publicly report coronavirus cases and deaths by race.
Black Americans are at a higher risk of dying or being seriously hurt by the coronavirus for a myriad of reasons that includes the simple fact that health disparities among racial lines have long existed. Black men and women have higher rates of pre-existing health conditions like diabetes, obesity, lung disease, asthma, high blood pressure, etc. These health concerns put them at a disadvantage in overcoming the virus’ deadly effects. And to be clear, black people are not genetically more likely to get infected. Pre-existing health conditions of African Americans are attributed to being less likely to have health insurance, doctors’ inferior care for black patients and a number of other reasons.
Domestically in the United States, most non-essential employees must work from home and practically all public and private schools are closed to impede the spread of the virus — more commonly known as “flattening the curve.”
An inordinately high number of black workers cannot work from home, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute based on federal labor data from 2017-2018. Asian workers, followed by white workers, were most likely to be able to do their jobs remotely. Only 19.7% of black American workers said they can work from home. It might be reasonable to assume that the percentage of black workers who can work from their homes has risen today since the reality of the pandemic has forced employers to be innovative in providing ways for employees to work while abiding to the guidelines of social distancing.
That is one word that can describe the unsettling state of affairs for people living through this pandemic. A health crisis of this magnitude might permanently shift society in ways that are unforeseen.
Could COVID-19 be the impetus for changes in the U.S. healthcare system — an improved framework for medical support that can prevent another national health crisis or be the driver for universal healthcare? Will future curriculums change in primary and secondary schools so as to bolster learning lost in the time students are outside of classrooms? Is it possible that after months of quarantining, current and future generations will have a newfound appreciation for the outdoors and a gratefulness for the lives people lived pre-self isolation and social distancing?
The past has passed unfortunately and black Americans must do their best to take on the brunt of COVID-19’s misery.
There are obvious reasons as to why black people specifically have disproportionately suffered thus far. Two of those reasons have already been laid out: pre-existing health issues and a greater number of essential jobs.
Chronic diseases make African Americans more susceptible to complications with the coronavirus. Additionally, black people are likely to work jobs that force them to be in close proximity to others, according to the Washington Post. African Americans are overrepresented in low-wage jobs like those in the food service industry, hotel industry, as taxi drivers and chauffeurs when compared to the overall population, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics compiled by the Center for American Progress
It is difficult to help slow the spread of the virus by following the CDC’s guidelines of social distancing when you work every day and are dependent on things like public transportation. Sadly, this reality doesn’t ring any louder than the unfortunate death of a 50-year-old black man whose job was in public transportation.
Detroit bus driver Jason Hargrove — a married father of six — died from complications with the coronavirus 11 days after posting a Facebook video on March 21 voicing his frustrations about a woman (who he estimated to be in her early ‘60s) who refused to cover her mouth when repeatedly coughing on the bus he drove.
“We out here as public workers doing our job, trying to make an honest living to take care of our families, but for you to get on the bus and stand on the bus and cough several times without covering up your mouth — and you know that we are in the middle of a pandemic — that lets me know that some folks don’t care,” Hargrove said.
His wife, Desha Johnson-Hargrove, talked to TIME about her late husband and her hope that people follow stay-at-home orders.
“It (coronavirus) took over him so very quickly that I’m still in disbelief,” Johnson-Hargrove said. “He was perfectly fine — a big, strong, 6’3 man — before that day. That day forever changed my life. Just stay home. You can save a life. People just don’t understand that you can really save a life. I am suffering right now. I will never get to see him again. I do not want my husband’s death to go in vain.”
Two other big-picture reasons as to why so many African Americans are reeling during the COVID-19 crisis are housing disparities and inadequate information.
Black children were found to be more likely to suffer from asthma because they lived in older buildings that had fecal matter and rodent infestations. Also, these conditions were in segregated neighborhoods near busy highways that create harmful air conditions, according to a 2017 Princeton University study. Black Americans, along with other people of color, live in more densely packed communities — a definite detriment during this age of social distancing.
Keneshia Grant, a political science professor at Howard University, argues that black people received mixed messages from the president and state governors.
“I think that what black America, and the entire nation, needed was a clear message from the federal government,” Grant said. “I think this is especially true, because it took a long while for black people to see themselves represented in this crisis.”
This effect can also be compounded when you take into consideration the underlying distrust some black Americans have when it comes to information from medical professionals and research done in the past.
During slavery, white doctors would force enslaved African Americans to participate in experiments that were both excruciating and dehumanizing. One later example in history that sheds light on the tensions between black people and the health providing community are the Tuskegee syphilis experiments from 1932-1972. A more modern example comes from research that shows pregnant black women are less likely to be listened to by their healthcare provider.
As The Fix’s Eugene Scott of The Washington Post says, “Things like this have made it challenging for black Americans to seek help and treatment for illness because of the notion that these health professionals do not have the black patients’ interests in mind.”
On March 18, a video was uploaded on YouTube showing two black men being kicked out of a Walmart in Wood River, Illinois for wearing masks to protect themselves against the coronavirus. But not just any type of masks, they both wore surgical masks.
Although the CDC did not officially recommend people wear masks when in public spaces until early April, the local police chief of Wood River had stated he supports the wearing of masks and face covers in public. Yet, the officer escorting the black men cited a city ordinance that prohibits wearing masks inside businesses, according to The Telegraph. An ordinance that does not exist.
This is the epitome of mixed messaging.
On the other side of the spectrum, a video circulated on April 10 of at least seven Philadelphia police officers dragging a black man off a city bus for not wearing a mask a single day after the city announced all riders must wear masks. A separate video of the same situation showed a white public transportation employee inside the bus yelling at the man to leave while he hypocritically was not wearing a mask himself. The man kicked off the bus was not identified, arrested, nor cited for the incident, according to a police spokesperson.
If you think the gamut for incidents involving black people, police and the threat of the coronavirus has been fully explored, then you would be incorrect.
A good number of African Americans are concerned that by wearing a mask — especially ones that are not surgical — they will be racially profiled as criminals or having gang affiliation by police officers and civilians. This fear could prompt some black people to not wear masks and expose themselves to the dangers of the virus that is already disproportionately killing them.
On April 10, a black man outside his home was handcuffed on video by police while putting tents in his van. Armen Henderson, 34, is a doctor who is taking it upon himself to test homeless people for the COVID-19 virus. Since homeless people are at-risk carriers, they can pass it along to people who use and work in public transportation, for example. Police thought he illegally offloaded trash on the sidewalk. Dr. Henderson was released only when his wife came outside and brought the officer his ID to prove he was indeed a medical professional.
The possibilities for black people ending up in perilous scenarios during this global pandemic are endless. These researched facts, incidents, in-depth and multi-layered viewpoints relating to the effects and reasons to why the coronavirus has truly hurt black Americans is not to make you feel guilty or be convinced that their hardship is preeminent among groups of people. If that is how you feel then fine, but do understand that is not the purpose for framing some parts of the black outlook when it comes to the coronavirus.
In general, this piece is solely meant to acknowledge issues and real-life circumstances for black families and individuals during this climate of unrest and uncertainty. To illuminate the adversity black people face while in America and how it is exacerbated by the pandemic is the primary aim.
Also, realize that many of the dangers that make African Americans more at-risk are because of some obvious elements: pre-existing health conditions, a disproportionate number of low-wage essential jobs, housing disparities and insufficient information from local and national governments. These things are caused by unfair and unjust systems created many years earlier and still enforced today. Let this time of turmoil inspire everyone to not just demand change but instead require it once normalcy returns. This must be a non-negotiable.
But for now, be cognizant of the fact that black U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said in his direct address to people of color to “avoid alcohol, tobacco and drugs” when those things are not solely applicable or main issues for these racial groups or specifically precipitate catching the virus.
He then proceeds with an attempt to appeal to these communities in their efforts to stay safe by saying, “If not for yourself, then for your abuela, do it for your grandaddy, do it for your big mama, do it for your pop pop.”
These are enormous slaps in the face.
To insinuate that drugs and alcohol vices are partly responsible for the devastating effects on non-white demographics is very irresponsible. It is equally disgraceful that Adams thinks a way to catch these groups’ proverbial ears and inspire unity in efforts to save people’s lives is to call their family members abuela, grandaddy, big mama and pop pop. In the grand scheme of things, this is not a statement worth getting too bothered since there are greater things at play in the world. However, recall these blatant shots of disrespect once we move forward from the coronavirus.
Black Americans are resilient to put it in one word. They have faced challenging situations throughout history and in modern times. African Americans have outlasted slavery, dealt with lynching, overcame disenfranchisement, fought institutional racism, combatted socioeconomic neglect, called out voter suppression, ended generations of destitution, persist in a society unbothered by mass incarceration and have survived plenty more atrocities. Maneuvering through difficulties has become so common for black people that it seemingly is embedded in their DNA.
This is black people’s tragic yet unrelenting spirit. This spirit will enable us to move past our latest challenges: COVID-19 and its aftermath.