COVID-19 and Race: A Brief Overview
by Hannah Wood
Black people make up 14% of the U.S. population and 40% of U.S. COVID-19 related deaths. In Alabama, 44.4% of COVID-19 related deaths have been Black fatalities, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health’s Data and Surveillance Dashboard. On April 10th, Surgeon General Jerome Adams suggested that people of color are responsible for their own morbidity: “We need you to do this, if not for yourself, then for your abuela. Do it for your granddaddy. Do it for your Big Mama. Do it for your Pop-Pop. We need you to understand – especially in communities of color, we need you to step up and help the spread so that we can protect those who are most vulnerable.” Shortly thereafter, many in mainstream media called to attention the racial disparities in healthcare, housing, and environment that make Black communities more vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. In addition to pointing out the discriminatory socioeconomic factors, many questioned why “communities of color” who are already vulnerable are being blamed for the inability to seek healthcare and, more importantly, how that inability is rooted in white supremacy.
Michael Harriot’s article “We Figured Out Why Coronavirus Is Killing Black People… As If You Didn’t Already Know the Answer” explains why millions of Black people may not have the luxury of practicing social distance or sheltering in place. Black Americans, he explains, are twice as likely to live in a multi-family unit, more likely to rely on public transit, less likely to have access to clean water, less likely to afford out-of-pocket health expenses, less likely to be insured, and more likely to live in a state that does not participate in the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. Mainstream information sources attribute the disproportionate COVID-19 deaths to pre-existing health conditions within Black communities, but what remains hidden are the socio-economic disparities that support a foundation for systemic racism. Moreover, in “Stop Blaming Black People for Dying of the Coronavirus,” Ibram X. Kendi argues that Black communities are being not only being blamed but stereotyped: “whenever Americans see a black individual not social distancing, they see black people not social distancing.” When prominent people urge Black communities to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously it sends a distorted message that fails to address systemic and economic racism. As Kendi explains, “There is everything wrong with lecturing a racial group to behave better as a solution to racial disparities.”
The COVID-19 crisis reminds us that we must address these disparities together as a community. In an article by Roy S. Johnson, Dr. Selwyn Vickers comments that “a crisis reveals pre-existing flaws,” and which historically, for Black Americans, includes lack of access to quality health care; and as Jamil Smith suggests in their article, “In the Horror Story, We Always Die First,” we can start by addressing loopholes in the coronavirus relief bill. The relief bill allows employers, particularly in the service industry– an industry that heavily employs Black and Latinx people– to deny employees paid leave. The president has also refused to open the Affordable Care Act’s Healthcare.gov for a special enrollment period during a time of unprecedented unemployment. We can also examine in our history of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment or the treatment of Henrietta Lacks. These acts of harm, disguised as healthcare, have led to mistrust between Black communities and providers. This mistrust is reinforced when providers do not listen to patients. Recently, St. Louis resident Randy Barnes stated in an interview that the hospital where his brother sought treatment for COVID-19 “sent him home without testing him,” which led him to conclude after his brother’s death, “Those people are not being tested. They’re not being cared for.”
We want to hear your stories. How has COVID-19 impacted your life? What have been your experiences with health care providers? With employment? With child care? Documenting your stories will help Project Say Something to better address racial inequities here in the Shoals so that we can build a better future together.