Racial Disparities Turn Even Deadlier During Pandemic

Brian Kemp

As Georgia's Republican governor, Brian Kemp, rushed last week to open such businesses as tattoo parlors and barbershops, Demetrius Young, a city commissioner in Albany, was apoplectic. According to The Washington Post, he vented his vexation with this musing: "For black folks, it's like a setup. Are you trying to kill us?"

Young's frustration is understandable. In Georgia, COVID-19 has struck black citizens disproportionately. According to available data, black Georgians have accounted for more than 50 percent of the deaths, though they make up only about 30 percent of the state's population.

And so it is in every state or city where racial data are available: The deaths of black Americans are disproportionate to our numbers in the population. In Michigan, for example, black people make up 14 percent of the population but account for about 40 percent of deaths. In Wisconsin, black people are 7 percent of the population but 33 percent of the deaths. In Mississippi, black people are 38 percent of the population but 61 percent of the deaths.

In Louisiana, black residents account for about 32 percent of the population but a staggering 70 percent of the deaths from COVID-19.

For medical authorities, there should not be any great surprise in these numbers. Black Americans have always had poorer health outcomes than white Americans. The novel coronavirus has simply brought those disparities into stark relief, into the headlines, into full view for any person with a conscience to see and to despair.

That clearly does not apply to President Donald J. Trump, whose lack of empathy for those who have suffered the worst of the pandemic has been explicit. And it may not apply to many of his supporters, either, including the overwhelmingly white crowds of protestors demanding that states drop their restrictive orders.

Even as politicians like Trump and Kemp continue with their heedless plans, the catastrophic death rate from coronavirus in black America ought to compel public health officials and the medical establishment to finally commit to systemic change. Many of the best among us have been dying too soon for much too long.

That's especially true for black men. In the actuarial tables, black women have been slowly catching up to white women for the past few decades. According to a 2016 report published by the American Journal of Public Health, by 2011, the life expectancy for white women was 81.1 years; for black women, 78.2 years. But the gap between white and black men was larger -- 76.6 years for white men, but 72.2 years for black men.

The poorer health outcomes for black Americans have their roots in the racist foundations of this nation: Slaves were valuable property but could be replaced if they fell ill. The poverty that has dogged us since then has limited the black population's access to health care. It's no wonder, then, that black Americans have higher rates of the underlying conditions on which the coronavirus feasts, including hypertension, heart disease, diabetes. In some Southern states with high rates of poverty -- including Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi -- Republican politicians have refused to expand Medicaid, which would have helped during this crisis.

Black Americans are also disproportionately employed in the "essential" occupations that force showing up for work in a physical location -- grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, bus drivers, hospital nursing assistants and janitors, postal clerks. This pandemic has been one more explicit reminder of the gap between America's professional class and its wage laborers.

But the legacy of racism isn't the only malicious force at work here. So is ongoing racism. There is now increasing evidence that black people with COVID-19 symptoms are turned away more frequently when they request a test. A biotech data firm recently reviewed insurance billing information from several states and found that black people are less likely to be able to get a test, according to National Public Radio.

The heartbreaking story of 30-year-old Rana Zoe Mungin, a Brooklyn schoolteacher, is just one example. Despite a fever and shortness of breath, she was turned away from an emergency room twice. She was finally admitted to a hospital five days after her first attempt to get tested. She died after a month on a ventilator.

Had she been white, her family might not be grieving.


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