Coronavirus, or COVID-19, is ravaging the United States. At this point, no one is safe from getting the disease. However, black people are dying of the virus at an alarmingly higher rate than other races and ethnicities. For example, in Illinois, black people only make up 14 percent of the population, and yet they’re 38 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases. Some people may wonder why, and the answer is incredibly simple — institutionalized and systemic racism.
To some, looking at the problem this way may not seem important. And others will accuse those who are talking about it of “making everything about race,” but here’s the thing that is vitally important to remember: racism is pervasive in this country. So, to not talk about race when it comes to a national pandemic is impossible.
Whether we like it or not, the main reason black people are dying of COVID-19 at higher numbers is because they’re black. The two biggest factors are access to healthcare and pre-existing conditions. Chronic illnesses that seem to affect black people at higher numbers like hypertension, asthma, diabetes and heart disease leave many immunocompromised. And because many black people don’t have the same level of access to reliable healthcare, they’re basically playing Russian roulette with getting/surviving the virus.
“COVID is just unmasking the deep disinvestment in our communities, the historical injustices and the impact of residential segregation,” Dr. Camara Jones, a family physician and epidemiologist tells ProPublica. Jones, who is also a visiting fellow at Howard University, worked at the CDC for 13 years, focusing on identifying, measuring, and addressing the racial bias in the medical system. “This is the time to name racism as the cause of all of those things. The overrepresentation of people of color in poverty and white people in wealth is not just a happenstance. … It’s because we’re not valued.”
The CDC typically tracks and releases data about the age, race, and location of people impacted by a specific viral outbreak. But, in regards to our current pandemic, the CDC has not released any data on race. The only data that has been released, so far, is related to location and age.
Even though the CDC isn’t releasing the data (if it exists), there are places releasing their own data related to COVID-19 and race. Illinois is one such place. According to WBEZ, as of Saturday, April 4th, 107 of Cook County’s 183 COVID deaths were black. Further, 70 percent, or 61 of Chicago’s 86 reported deaths, are black. Black people only make up 26 percent of Chicago’s population.
It’s a similar situation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. According to ProPublica, Milwaukee’s COVID cases came from an affluent white suburb. Once it reached the black community, it spread like wildfire. As of Friday, April 3rd, almost half of Milwaukee County’s 945 COVID cases are black. Additionally, black people make up 81 percent of the county’s 27 deaths, but black people are a mere 26 percent of the city’s population.
“It will be unimaginable pretty soon,” infectious disease doctor and associate dean at Howard University’s School of Medicine, Dr. Celia J. Maxwell, tells ProPublica. “And anything that comes around is going to be worse in our patients. Period. Many of our patients have so many problems, but this is kind of like the nail in the coffin.”
As writer Michael Harriot points out in a Twitter thread on Saturday, April 4th, many of the health issues that exacerbate COVID-19 are diseases that disproportionately affect black people. Things like asthma or other breathing issues, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, severe obesity and diabetes exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms. In Cook County, 81 percent of the black people who died suffered from either hypertension or diabetes. Some suffered from both.
“It’s disturbing and upsetting, but not surprising,” Dr. Linda Murray, a health policy professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago tells WBEZ. “This is just a reflection of the facts that we already know about these pandemics. People who are vulnerable will die quicker and won’t have as many resources.”
Black people often receive subpar healthcare — doctors are less likely to believe they’re actually experiencing the pain and symptoms they describe. With how hard getting a COVID-19 test is, it’s very likely that many black people aren’t going to the hospital, or seeking any medical care, until it may be too late. When we’re talking about the same country where black women face a higher likelihood of dying in childbirth, it’s not shocking this pandemic is disproportionately killing our community.
“[So] if you know those disparities exist in terms of health outcomes, you can imagine that overlaying a new disease is only going to exacerbate whatever inequities already exist,” adds Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
A 2012 study from Johns Hopkins University shows that black people are more likely to live in a “healthcare desert.” Researchers examined U.S. Census and American Medical Association date from the years 2000 to 2006 to determine which zip codes in metropolitan areas had a shortage of primary care physicians. The areas could include rural neighborhoods. The shortage was defined as one physician for every 3,500 people, or no PCP at all. The study found that 25.6 percent of black people live in areas with few or no primary care physicians. Because of this shortage of doctors, there could be many more dying of COVID-19 than we will ever know.
Another thing to consider is how many black people are likely still leaving the house with regularity, and not because they are intentionally defying shelter-in-place orders. There are many black people working those jobs deemed “essential,” like grocery store employees, fast food workers, warehouse workers, and those who work in the medical field like nurses. Many black people living in major cities are likely to be taking public transportation to and from these jobs. When you factor this in, it only magnifies the issue the black community is facing.
COVID-19 is hitting black communities the hardest, and black people are going to keep dying at alarming rates from this virus. When you can look at statistics coming from places like Illinois or Milwaukee and not see the glaring problems, it’s willful ignorance. Acknowledging that disproportionately high numbers of black people are dying isn’t “playing the race card.” Black people don’t deserve to die at a higher rate because the system is stacked against us.