Each year the National Urban League publishes its “State of Black America” report that highlights the growing disparity between Black and white Americans on income, wealth, health, and other listings on the misery index. There is no need to wait for the report this year because the novel coronavirus pandemic has placed those glaring disparities, the disproportional impact of the disease on African Americans and other communities of color in daily reports.
The recent pandemic, which shows only glimpses of flattening, presents another nadir on the African American timeline. Just when we think we’ve reached the summit of setbacks, another one arrives with even more devastating results.
Of course, it comes as no surprise that African Americans and other people of color are dying in disproportionality to white Americans. While the disease is no respecter of race, creed or religion it seems to ravage the poor and dispossessed more so than others, and there are a number of economic, political, and cultural factors involved in this outcome. Although statistics are still inconclusive there are clear indicators that because Blacks and Latinos are generally employed as frontline and service workers they are not able to shelter in place and out of necessity are forced in to duty to face the brunt of the outbreak. Some pundits conclude this is a very deliberate death march from the highest office to reduce the size of minorities in the nation.
There are a host of socio-economic factors to weigh when denoting the disparities that exist in the nation, and poverty is perhaps the most crucial. When it comes to exposure to the pandemic the workplace is proving highly consequential, and since African Americans and people of color are deemed among the essential workers they are more likely to be the most susceptible to the virus.
On Tuesday, April 28, with Trump’s signing an executive order compelling workers in the meat processing plants to stay on the job––disregarding the risks they face, defining them as essential––we are reminded of Annie Grant of Georgia, who was forced to return to work at a Tyson plant in Camilla, Georgia after reporting her illness. After spending more than a week on a ventilator, she died on April 9. She was 55 and one of her sons watched on his phone as his mother took her last breath. Grant was just one of the three Tyson workers at the plant to succumb to COVID-19.
Martin said his mother told him that “If we don’t come to work, we don’t get paid,” or they risk being fired. “She had to go, you know,” he said.
Workers in the food processing industry aren’t the only “essentials” who labor in close contact with each other or with people who are infected with COVID-19. A disproportionate number of Black women are nurses and caregivers in senior citizen residences and nursing facilities. Given the dramatic number of people dying in nursing homes from the virus, it is of interest to know about the Black-white disparities there among the victims and their caretakers. As David Grabowski and Thomas McGuire show in their study “nursing homes serve many severely ill-poor people, including numbers of racial/ethnic minority residents. Previous research indicates that Blacks tend to receive care from lower quality homes.”
This study sheds light when it was learned that 19 nursing homes in New York reported 20 or more deaths from COVID-19. A nursing home in New Jersey reported 70 deaths out of its 500 residents, the homes, according to Gov. Cuomo, had become a “feeding frenzy” for the virus and “the single biggest fear.” Several factors come into play for the elderly clustered in these homes, where many of them suffer from heart and chronic lung disease, obesity, strokes, and diabetes, all illnesses that have a deleterious effect on Black Americans, though the victims are rarely identified by race. Nor are socioeconomic vectors or status viewed as mediating factors.
At the moment we do not have the number of Black health care givers and nurses who have succumbed during this crisis, but three Black women have been recently profiled, including Diedre Heard Wilkes, a mammogram technician at Piedmont Newman Hospital in Atlanta; Judy Wilson-Griffin, a prenatal clinical nurse specialist at SSM Health-St. Mary’s Hospital-St. Louis; and Freda Ocran, who worked as a nursing supervisor in Jacobi Medical Center’s psychiatric ward in New York City. Two weeks before her death, Freda began exhibiting mild symptoms of the disease, but continued to work, though she was eventually sent home without being tested for the virus. A dedicated health care worker, she returned to work but was soon put on a ventilator on March 24. She died four days later. Like so many of the fatalities, the lack of testing was lethal. There’s was no way of knowing if she was working with someone who had it or not, said her son, Kwame Ocran.
Transit workers in Detroit, where the population is 80% African American, are not disproportionally impacted by the virus, which is no relief to the city’s essential workers like bus drivers. One of them, Jason Hargrove, died in April from COVID-19 and he was among a large contingent of workers testing positive for the virus. According to Eric Colts, a bus driver, it’s “like being locked in a 40-foot long coronavirus incubator,” he said of his confinement to the bus.
On April 1, when Hargrove died, seven other drivers tested positive for the virus, and more than 100 were in quarantine awaiting results. It was recently disclosed that 51 bus system employees had tested positive for the virus and 136 of them were in quarantine. Mayor Mike Duggan, like many other mayors, have deemed transit workers essential to the continued health and safety of their cities. This was especially true in Detroit, where about 25% of residents depend solely on public buses, much to their chagrin.
COVID-19 has spread, too, in the Detroit Police Department where two-thirds of its officers are African American. It’s hard to make a case for disproportionality here with 20% of the officers quarantined. Detroit’s situation went national when the department’s chief, James Craig, tested positive, and even more mournful when Captain Jonathan Parnell, 50, died due to complications from the disease. He started feeling sick in the middle of March, left work and went home to bed. A few days later, Parnell, normally a vigorous man, was unable to shake the virus but not sick enough to be admitted to the hospital. The 31-year veteran of the force died on March 24.
Sanitation workers are considered essential too and according to a recent report by the New York City’s public advocate 79% of the city’s frontline workers—nurses, subway staff, sanitation workers, van drivers, grocery cashiers—are African American or Latino. More than 350 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed by New York’s Department of Sanitation, and once again the proportionality may not apply but the risk is not minimized.
Where the disproportionality may not be so evident in the scheme of things when measured in small categories––the big picture, as Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of Princeton University reveals––is another story. “In Michigan,” she wrote, “African Americans make up 14% of the state’s population, but, currently, they account for 33% of its reported infections and 40% of its deaths.” In a narrower sense, however, she notes that “Twenty-six per cent of the state’s infections and 25% of deaths are in Detroit, a city that is 79% African American.”
Professor Taylor also cites that the virus is raging in Chicago, where African Americans account for 52% of the city’s confirmed cases and “a startling 72% of deaths—far outpacing their proportion of the city’s population.” More to the point of disproportionality, she underscores some of the critical factors previously made about the disparities and inequality. “Black people are poorer, more likely to be underemployed, condemned to substandard housing, and given inferior health care because of their race,” she noted. “These factors explain why African Americans are 60% more likely to have been diagnosed with diabetes than white Americans, and why Black women are 60% more likely to have high blood pressure than white women. Such health disparities are as much markers of racial inequality as mass incarceration or housing discrimination.”
Dr. James Hildreth, president and CEO of Meharry Medical College, and a leading immunologist, provides scientific ballast to the anecdotal findings in an opinion article he authored for the news website The Hill on April 29. He observed in a roundup of states, that “Michigan, where 14% of the population is Black yet 33% of those with COVID-19 are Black; to Louisiana, where 32% of the population is Black yet 70 of the dead are Black; to the city of Boston, where 25% of the population is Black yet 40% of those infected are Black—we see a horrifying but compelling pattern that, if investigated, could help us eventually stop the spread of the virus.”
“Here’s why,” he continued. “While COVID-19 does not see color, it does see—and viciously attacks—people with underlying health conditions: lung, heart, and kidney disease, as well as cancer, diabetes and other chronic illnesses. Minority and underserved communities suffer and die in far higher numbers from these diseases. They always have. While the COVID-19 data on minorities are alarming, they are not shocking.”
Let this be the last stanza on the “disproportional blues” and this sad lament with its unabated misery index is going to resonate for some time to come, according to Dr. Hildreth. He warned that the virus will continue to spread until herd immunity is achieved. The race for a vaccine is setting a record pace, he said, but the idea that summer heat will get rid of the virus can’t be expected. Moreover, he added, “Other countries facing outbreaks are in the summer months and they are still experiencing the same strain as other countries.” And, to be sure, the spread of the virus will continue to disproportionally ravage African Americans and other communities of color.