Coronavirus Is Wreaking Havoc on Black People Across the United States
Doctors and nurses from around the country are scrambling to protect vulnerable communities
On April 5, Washington, D.C.’s health department reported 1,097 positive Covid-19 cases and 24 deaths. It is clear that the areas of the city with the most positive cases are majority Black. In Ward 6 and Ward 4, at least 40% of the residents are Black. Ward 7, third on the list, is 92% Black.
Michael Knight, MD, an internal medicine physician at George Washington Medical Faculty Associates, is very concerned about this racial disparity, which is a pattern that has emerged across the United States in the past few weeks. Black people make up a disproportionately large percentage of new positive Covid-19 cases and deaths in major cities all over the United States. Medical and public health professionals around the country say misinformation about the disease in Black communities, together with the long-standing economic, environmental, and health inequities that affect them, are to blame for the trend.
Knight tells Elemental he is worried about how many Black residents of Washington, D.C., will die or have severe health complications because of Covid-19.
“I’m really concerned, because it’s something that did not start in our community, so a lot of people may or may not have taken it seriously or may or may not have thought it was going to affect them personally,” says Knight, a Black doctor. “And unfortunately that allows people to not be prepared, so when it does show up in your community, we’re scrambling now.”
“They’re not training [new delivery drivers] at the office,” she says, “so he had to train two people in his car.”
He says Black people from all over the city, which is 47% Black, have been coming to the testing stations at his medical office and the nearby George Washington University Hospital, which are located in a predominantly White area of D.C. “Everyone was fine, but now Auntie’s sick or Mama’s sick or someone else has symptoms.”
There are a number of reasons why Black people and other people of color in the city are at increased risk for not only contracting the virus but also dying or experiencing severe symptoms from it, Knight says. There was early misinformation floating around that Black people couldn’t contract the virus, and people of color tend to have jobs that are considered essential. Many work as delivery and public transit drivers, retail workers, and housekeepers. People of color, he adds, generally receive lower-quality health care.
It is also well documented that Black and Latinx people in the United States have disproportionately higher rates of health conditions like asthma, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, which have been shown to result in more severe complications and higher rates of death from Covid-19. In many cases, these health conditions are linked to environmental stressors like air pollution, contaminated water, and food deserts, which disproportionately ravage Black and Latinx communities.
“The bottom line is that poor people and people of color both are differentially exposed to environmental hazards—air pollution is one, but other things as well. You know, they don’t put power plants or refineries or rail yards in rich, White neighborhoods,” says John Balmes, MD, a pulmonary physician at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and public health professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “[And those] differential exposure to environmental hazards might increase the risk for various diseases.”
The numbers already show how Covid-19 is wreaking havoc on Black people all over the United States. The Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development in New York City, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, has published data showing that most of the hardest-hit areas in New York are communities of color. In Philadelphia, most new cases of the virus are Black residents, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. In Michigan, which is only 14% Black, 40% of Covid-19 deaths are Black people. In Chicago, the proportion is higher: 70%. In Milwaukee County, where Black people make up 26% of the population, Black people make up 81% of deaths.
Community activist Camille Mays lives in Sherman Park on Milwaukee’s north side, the area with most cases of Covid-19. She knows seven or eight people with the virus and at least one person who died of it. All of them are Black. Black Milwaukeeans tend to be essential workers, she says, which means they must put themselves at increased risk of contracting the virus to go to restaurants, stores, and factories in order to do their jobs. Her son, a delivery driver for Domino’s Pizza, is one of those people.
“They’re not training [new delivery drivers] at the office,” Mays says, “so he had to train two people in his car.”
To mitigate the spread of the virus among Black Milwaukeeans, Mays is reaching out to people over the phone and online to educate them about the dangers of the virus and encourage them to stay indoors to flatten the curve.
What concerns her, Mays says, “is how many people are walking around asymptomatic or already have it and never got documented as having had it. How many people have it? It’s kind of hard to gauge that, because there aren’t enough tests.”
“This is kind of forcing us, I think, to confront the fact that we don’t have much of a social safety net to deal with a crisis.”
But even in areas where sheltering in place seems to have reduced the spread of the virus, like the San Francisco Bay Area, hospital workers are worried about Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on people of color and poor people.
John Pearson is an emergency room nurse at Highland Hospital in Oakland, where the patient population is 38% Black, 27% Latinx, and 13% Asian/Pacific Islander. He says many of the patients who come to the ER present with conditions like asthma, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, which increase their risk of death or long-term complications if they contract Covid-19. In parts of Oakland with high Black and Latinx populations, environmental hazards are associated with these conditions. Asthma’s link to air pollution in these areas is well documented: Highway traffic creates terrible air quality in West Oakland, a historically Black part of the city, as well as in East Oakland, which is largely Latinx and Black. Food scarcity and poor diets resulting from a lack of both income and grocery stores are also common in those areas.
Hospital staff at Highland are “extremely anxious” as they brace for a surge in confirmed cases of the virus, Pearson says.
“This is kind of forcing us, I think, to confront the fact that we don’t have much of a social safety net to deal with a crisis,” he says. “That is making the outcome of this pandemic so much worse, and I think the pandemic makes so much more obvious. It shows us that if we don’t have those things, we pay the price in human lives very literally.”