Black Americans story with COVID-19 is no different

by Community Change Action | April 21, 2020 1:10 pm

Photo credit: Pisauikan, Pixabay

By Ponsella Hardaway, Executive Director for MOSES Action, and Dr. Seft Hunter, Director of Black Led Organizing for Community Change Action

Black Americans have historically been disproportionately impacted by chronic disease in this country and the story with COVID-19 is no different. Last week, we saw the first signs that Black Americans were not only being infected by the coronavirus at alarming rates but were also dying sooner as well.  

For example, Blacks are 80% of the population in Detroit but account for more than 40% of the total deaths in the state of Michigan. In Chicago, Black Americans are approximately a third of the population but account for almost 70% of COVID-19 related deaths. A similar picture is emerging in Milwaukee, where Blacks account for 81% of the COVID-19 related deaths but are only about a quarter of the population. The same is true in New Orleans, where Blacks make up 60% of the population but account for 70% of the overall deaths in the state of Louisiana

Although the Centers for Disease Control has failed to release fatality rates by race, the preliminary data available from some states suggest that Black American’s more than any other racial group are getting infected and dying at alarming rates. It is clear that we must address the racial systemic conditions that deny access to healthcare and opportunity to Black communities leaving them more susceptible to financial hardship and even death during the COVID-19 crisis.  

But long before the emergence of this virus, Black communities faced well documented economic and health challenges that are now exacerbating the disease’s impact. 

A report by the National Center for Health Statistics found that between majority-Black and white neighborhoods, there is a life expectancy difference greater than 15 years. Black Detroit residents, for example, are more likely to face many of the underlying chronic diseases (diabetes, obesity, asthma) commonly thought to increase one’s risk of premature death when paired with COVID-19. 

The National Medical Association finds that diabetes was 77% higher among Black population than white or LatinX groups. The unemployment rate of Black Detroit residents is almost twice as high as that of whites, with Blacks being over-represented in service sector jobs that pay low wages, offer few benefits, and protection for workers. 

In fact, Black workers are overrepresented among this new group of workers now deemed essential. A report by the Economic Policy Institute finds that only about 20% of Black workers hold jobs that can be performed from home. 

Black workers are at the forefront helping to fight this disease in direct patient care of maintaining critical functions such as garbage removal, operating public transit and restocking the grocery shelves. All the while, they are doing these jobs without health insurance and few workplace protections. These workers deserve no less than a living wage of least $25/hr and access to healthcare for themselves and their families. 

Due to the failure of our federal government to create a comprehensive plan, local and state leaders are still struggling to mount an effective response against the coronavirus. We cannot address this challenge without acknowledging the disproportionate racial impact this pandemic and the economic crisis is having on the Black community.  This fact must be reflected in the response. 

We believe the first step towards comprehensively managing this virus begins by systemically tracking and reporting COVID-19 related data in a manner that allows us to understand the true impact of this virus on particular communities. 

In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently appointed a task force dedicated to addressing the COVID-19 related racial disparities. She must ensure this group is adequately resourced and is empowered to address this issue with the urgency it requires. 

Gov. Whitmer must also work with the congressional delegation to ensure that communities of color get the benefits promised under the recently passed $2 trillion stimulus bill. These communities were promised benefits up to $1,200 and an additional $500 for each qualifying child under age 17. As this program is now being rolled out, residents are worried about all the requirements that could delay or deny benefits to them altogether. 

For example, there is a stipulation in the bill that requires residents to file taxes for either 2018 or 2019. Many immigrant families, including ITIN filers and mixed-status families, are not eligible. These measures will result in extensive delays in benefits reaching families that are counting on this money to pay for food, housing, and medicine. These barriers to benefits must be removed in the next round of stimulus Congress is considering.

We must also demand that Congress provide resources to drastically expand coronavirus testing and access to healthcare in Black and low income and communities that we now know are most at risk of confronting the most dire COVID-19 outcomes.  Black and brown workers are over-represented in occupations that put them at increased risk of COVID-19 exposure. For example, while Latinos comprise more than 40 percent of workers in Building Cleaning Services, Black workers comprise more than 19 percent of workers in Child Care and Social Services.

These communities must be provided with personal protective equipment and training to all essential workers. Workers must be provided with hazard pay, increased regular wages, and access to healthcare for themselves and their families during the period they are performing these critical functions.

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