Why Black Americans are Dying More Than Anyone Else During the COVID-19 Crisis
Historic injustices have led us here.
Although the data is incomplete, reports are emerging that more black Americans are dying from COVID-19 than any other group. States like Illinois, Louisiana, and Michigan have released their early numbers. In Louisiana, black Americans are 33% of the population but represent 70% of deaths.deaths. Most of those deaths have occurred in Orleans Parish, which is predominantly black and poor. In Illinois, deaths among blacks are about 43% when they only make up 15% of the population. In Chicago, 70% of deaths from COVID-19 are blacks. The data in Michigan is similar. While only 14% of Michigan’s population is black, they account for 40% of deaths.
These are just the states who are looking at a race breakdown of data. Representative Ayanna Pressley and Senator Elizabeth Warren are two members of Congress calling for a collection of race and ethnic data by the Department of Health and Human Services. As data continues to emerge, the statistics show a vast disparity between white and black communities.
Pre-existing conditions on multiples levels
How is the percentage of death among black Americans higher than their actual numbers? To begin to answer that question, you have to look at overall health. Many of the deaths occurred among people who had a pre-existing condition that left them immuno-compromised. Heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes are particularly high in the African American community, which puts them at high risk for COVID-19.
Another component related to health is access to services. Health facilities in many black communities are small local clinics that don’t have adequate resources when it comes to basic healthcare, much less to fight a pandemic. Beyond that, generations of mistrust between blacks and the health care establishment add another roadblock to seeking medical attention.
During the COVID-19 crisis, many essential workers are black Americans. Many blacks work in food services, restaurants, and delivery services, coming into contact with the public every day. When they leave their jobs, many are going home to a densely populated urban area or a home with multiple people.
The Center for Disease Control recommended that the public wear masks to protect themselves. It’s simple for most Americans. But black Americans, particularly black men, have to pay attention to how they present themselves to the world. A small act like wearing a hoodie can be problematic. Wearing a mask in public could pose a problem, so some people are refusing to wear one. A black educator from Ohio tweeted, “I want to stay alive, but I want to stay alive.” Recent events show that fear was founded. A YouTube video shows a white police officer following two black men wearing surgical masks in a Walmart, telling them they couldn’t wear their masks, and, eventually asking them to leave. If black Americans face obstacles in following guidance from a public health organization to save their lives, how many more will they face if they do get sick?
History of inequality
During Hurricane Katrina, over half of the deaths were black Americans. Again, most lived in Orleans Parish. Many people who were stranded and couldn’t get out were poor blacks. Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “The people standing on those rooftops were not rich white people.” Poor black people were the first to die, and the last to be helped.
The inequity goes back even further. The history of mistrust between the black community and healthcare systems was decades in the making. Black men are more likely to die earlier than white men because they are less likely to seek medical treatment. Researchers found in a 2017 study that some older black men will not seek medical treatment, due, in part, to the Tuskegee study. In this experiment, researchers lied to subjects about treating them for syphilis when what they were observing was the lasting effects of the disease.
Black Americans are less likely to receive the best care when it comes to cancer and HIV treatment. They’re also more likely to die. Black women who are pregnant are less likely to be taken seriously when complaining of ailments.
These systemic factors have contributed to what’s happening to blacks during the COVID-19 crisis. Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “health disparities have always existed for the African-American community. He also added that the current situation “is shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is.”
The question is: will we use that light to look at the systems that brought us here and make a real change?