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Is anything being done to save Black lives from deadly pandemic?

By Barrington M. Salmon, Nisa Islam Muhammad and Tariqah Shakir-Muhammad The Final Call @TheFinalCall | Last updated: Apr 14, 2020 - 12:30:23 PM

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WASHINGTON—Over the past couple of weeks, politicians on the local, state and federal level, the U.S. surgeon general, medical experts and other analysts have raised concerns about the disproportionate effect coronavirus is having on Black folks. But the question still remaining is, what’s being done about it?

Gerald Bryson, left, joins workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, N.Y., protesting conditions in the company’s warehouse, March 30, in New York. Photo: AP Bebeto Matthews
Democratic Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Democratic Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Robin Kelly sent a letter in late March to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) asking officials there to direct the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to work with municipalities, states and private labs to ensure that racial and ethnic data are being collected. Soon after Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of President Donald Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force and Surgeon General Jerome Adams spoke about their deepening concerns about the disparities.

Lawmakers told DHHS Secretary Alex Azar that their concerns stem from comprehensive demographic data that doesn’t exist on those who are tested or being treated for Covid-19. They expressed their alarm that cities with large Black and non-White Hispanic populations had emerged as new hot spots for the spread of the virus.

“Any attempt to contain Covid-19 in the United States will have to address its potential spread in low-income communities of color, first and foremost to protect the lives of people in those communities, but also to slow the spread of the virus in the country as a whole,” the lawmakers told Sec. Azar.

They pointed to chronic health conditions and healthcare access disparities between White people and people of color “that experts have identified as risk factors for complications from Covid-19.” According to the CDC, Black and non-White Hispanic adults are more likely to be obese and are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than non-Hispanic White adults are.

In this April 7, photo, Erica Harris, right, and her daughter Jordan, wear their protective masks as they walk back home after getting a lunch and homework from the child’s school on Chicago’s South Side. Photo: AP Charles Rex Arbogast
Asthma is more prevalent among non-White adults and children, the lawmakers noted, and people of color and immigrants are also less likely to be insured, leaving many without access to quality health care providers.

“Furthermore, a history of discrimination and marginalization has left some people of color distrustful of the medical system, making them less likely to seek out timely care,” they wrote in the letter.

According to reports 68 percent of coronavirus deaths in Chicago are Blacks, who comprise 30 percent of the city’s population. In Louisiana, Governor John Bel Edwards announced in early April that 70 percent of the Covid-19 deaths were Blacks, who make up a third of the state’s population. One of the nation’s new hotspots is New Orleans, a majority-Black city with substantial poverty among Black residents. In Michigan, officials reported the disproportionate toll with Blacks representing 40 percent of the confirmed deaths in the state which has an African American population of 14 percent. 

Troubled by the relentless spread of Covid-19, the relaxed response of too many Black people to the threat, and not inclined to sit around, Dr. Safiyya Shabazz said she and fellow colleagues formed the Black Muslim Covid Coalition. Dr. Shabazz said she and her colleagues recognize that Blacks would be disproportionately affected and that more resources are needed.

“The fact that Black and Brown people are affected disproportionately should be no surprise,” she said. “They have a greater representation and our economic status makes it more likely that we’re living in close quarters and in homes with less space,” said the Philadelphia-based physician. 

These disturbing facts have been the norm for decades and should be ringing alarm bells from all levels of government, activists, the medical community and others, yet there is seemingly a tepid response and slow response in the effort to save Black lives by addressing these systemic problems, particularly from people at the highest levels of government. 

Testing for the virus started off considerably slow and to date is still restricted in many parts of the country. Reportedly 100,000 people are being tested daily. The country’s “patchwork testing system remains uneven, many are denied tests or must wait several days for results as labs struggle to process a growing backlog of tests,” noted USA Today. Where exactly does this leave Black people and the poor who need or want to be tested? 

Baltimore and Washington, homes to significant Black populations, were designated as emerging hotspots because of their rapidly increasing numbers of Covid-19 cases.  

“This virus continues to spread in every single jurisdiction in the state, but the concentration of Maryland cases has rapidly intensified particularly in the Baltimore-Washington corridor,” said Maryland Governor Larry Hogan at a press conference April 7. 

“Over the past two weeks I have been sounding the alarm with the president, the vice president, members of the president’s task force, and other top administration officials, and I’m pleased to report that we have succeeded in convincing the Trump administration to designate the greater Baltimore-Washington corridor as a priority.”

This designation allows for greater federal attention for funds and supplies.  The Baltimore Washington corridor is home to hundreds of thousands of federal workers and federal office buildings including the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

The number of known cases in the District, and Maryland stood at 8,635 on April 10, with 6,971 cases in Maryland, and 1,664 in the District. The number of virus-related deaths was 171 in Maryland and 39 in the District, for a total of 152 fatalities.  In Maryland, Prince George’s County had the most with 1,310 cases, followed by Montgomery County with 1,088 cases. 

Both areas have significant numbers of Black people testing positive for Covid-19 and dying.

Maryland released data by race for the first time April 9, that showed Black residents, are disproportionately affected by the virus. The state is nearly 30 percent (29.4) Black, but Black residents are more than half of the deaths in cases where the person’s race is known, 55 of the 103 cases.

Maryland health officials were under intense pressure from legislators and others to release the racial breakdown of confirmed cases to respond appropriately.  Once the data was released, cases were subsequently broken down according to zip codes to determine the best place for testing sites.

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young opened the city’s first drive thru coronavirus testing center at the Pimlico Race Course April 10.  Pimlico is the heaviest hit ZIP code: 21215 in the Northwest area of Baltimore, which had 64 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and where about four in five of the area’s residents are Black. The city’s population is more than 60 percent Black.

“We are excited to be able to offer this service to city residents as we battle the Covid-19 pandemic together,” said Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, the city’s health commissioner at a press conference. Prince George’s County has the highest number of confirmed cases in the state: 1,476 as of April 9.  That county is 61 percent Black.

Health officials believe the real number of people who have Covid-19 is dramatically more than those who have tested positive, because testing remains limited to people who meet a list of criteria.  

Once tested it can take from 10 days to two weeks for the results to come back or for people to become symptomatic if they have been exposed. Public health officials say the number of cases will continue to rise as testing expands. This leaves the most vulnerable, who work as bus drivers, drive for ride-share companies, work for the post office and other delivery services, in restaurants and in the medical field at an increased risk. 

Dr. Ebony Jade Hilton and academic, author and columnist Andre Perry told The Final Call that it’s important for the wider society to understand and acknowledge the fact that African Americans are suffering disproportionately from the novel coronavirus pandemic for reasons out of their control. The disparities are driven by centuries of structural racism and federal, state and local policies and programs that hobbled the ability of Black people to operate in a fair, free and open environment.

“I actually think the conversation misses some critical aspects of why the Black population is suffering,” said Mr. Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the forthcoming book, ‘Know Your Price.’ “The virus doesn’t discriminate. Folks still point out the underlying medical condition, but they were helped by policy. Black people face environmental racism and are forced to live in sub-standard housing because of a lack of investment and disinvestment in education and other areas. These are the things that also influence individual behavior,” said Mr. Perry.

“The media focuses on the disproportionate rates and blames individuals for the spread of the disease. We need to say no, that they spotlight the tragedy…” he added. 

Dr. Hilton, an associate professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Virginia, agreed with Mr. Perry, saying Black people need to be more proactive about their personal health now because of the adverse and outsized impact of coronavirus on African Americans.

But something so seemingly simple is made very difficult. African Americans are living in food deserts, roads in their communities are often unpaved, lacking sidewalks or otherwise not amenable to residents walking or exercising, Dr. Hilton explained. Further, she said, systematic racism results in what she called a social determinant health gap where communities of color have to contend with unequal levels of access to hospitals, clinics and other medical facilities.

She described three factors that affect Black people: health disparities; genetic makeup and social life and the community component. These inequities are what are responsible at one level or another with the high incidence of heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity, as well as asthma in children. Since the founding of this country, Dr. Hilton said, Blacks were denied access or limited in their ability to secure adequate nutrition, health, wealth and shelter. Access to education, transportation, housing, nutrition are health determinants directly connected to the vulnerability of African Americans, and their ability to survive Covid-19.

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. said Blacks across the country have been deeply engrossed in studying the scope and pervasive nature of the deadly pandemic, assessing its impact on the African American community and finding ways to navigate through or around this new reality. But as much as people are doing, everyone needs to do more, he said.

“Black people should be more than observers, more than witnesses— we have to protect ourselves, our families, our communities,” said Dr. Chavis, president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a consortium of more than 200 Black news publications nationally. “Black America, out of an abundance of caution, should not follow White America. We have to develop own media and develop an action agenda.”

Dr. Chavis, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement and an assistant to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, said Blacks have to return to the independent and self-sufficiency that has served them for the past 400 years in America.

“I am a strong supporter of more Black radio, television and social media,” said Dr. Chavis, who is also the NNPA’s Global Director of the organization’s Coronavirus Taskforce. “We need to pitching tents rather than folding our tents. We don’t need Facebook, we need Blackbook. We don’t need Twitter, we need Black Twitter. We need our own self-defined media outlets and other forms of communication.”

This still does not absolve the U.S. government at various levels of its duties and responsibilities. 

Social distancing requires people to stay at least six feet away from each other and wear protective masks.  It also requires crowds be less than 10 people.  This can be difficult for people who require public transportation to get to work and the grocery store.  

Healthcare workers and medical committees are strongly urging Black communities to take their health seriously and follow the precautions issued by their local and state governments to prevent themselves from getting sick.

“It’s important that we’re doing what we’re able to do for ourselves,” Dr. Khadijah Lang from the National Medical Association told The Final Call. “The most effective thing that we have available for ourselves right now are number one,  proper social isolating; and proper hygiene; you know, be serious about washing your hands frequently, be serious about trying to avoid touching things,” she said. 

“The healthcare system is coming right out and admitting finally that the healthcare system is not prepared or able to care of the illnesses coming to the country so we’ve got to be ready to take care of ourselves and not be dependent on that. The reality is the hospitals, the public health centers, the departments of public health are all saying ‘we don’t have the staffing or the supplies or the space to take care of everybody so they are not going to take us in.”

Dr. Lang added, that preventative measures such as maintaining a good diet and managing any health conditions such as diabetes and hypertension is the best thing to do. 

President of the National Medical Association, Dr. Oliver T. Brooks agreed. “I believe we need to get the message out through vehicles such as The Final Call and such as whatever faith community people believe in, get the message out through whatever media people interact with the outside world through social media, radio and television and that message is quite frankly, to take seriously the recommendations about self-isolation and good hygiene.”

Furthermore, he stated that the local and state government should assist in funding and making testing more accessible. “State and local governments should ensure that their testing sites are readily available in the Black community. We shouldn’t have to go10 miles away to test, and we may be the ones who don’t have the transportation, so we have to use public transportation to get there and get exposed,” he said.

“We need for there to be adequate and now extra funding for community health centers. I believe there needs to be funding available for the smaller group of practitioners and this may be more on a federal level than state and local but what’s happening is that some of the smaller practices—doctors that are by themselves—things are slow because routine care has been postponed until this is over. There have not been revenues, they don’t have the cash reserves [and] some of them are going under,” he said. 

“It’s like the best thing since sliced bread to them—meaning the main corporate America media—because the light is now being shown because of this pandemic,” said National Medical Association Media Director Michael Peery. “It’s showing just like in 2005 with (Hurricane) Katrina we saw the breaks in the levy, and it wasn’t so much the storm, it was the breaks and the levy that caused the problem,” he said. 

“Here we are in this pandemic but guess what? There are breaches in the health care system that is causing more damage than the pandemic.”

Dr. Leon Mcdougle, president-elect of the National Medical Association gave detail of what those breaches are. “This whole pandemic puts an umbrella of public health department rules to help triage and decide upon who will receive care with scarcity of resources, and that’s a public conversation that needs to happen and it hasn’t happened,” he told The Final Call.