On top of everything else going on right now, there's stark evidence that COVID-19 is disproportionately killing African-Americans because we're more likely to be "essential employees" like nurses, delivery drivers, warehouse workers, maintenance and cleaning staff, and far less likely to be in a position to work from home, to have health resources or any kind, or to practice social distancing, and that the virus has a much higher mortality rate among us to boot.
The coronavirus entered Milwaukee from a white, affluent suburb. Then it took root in the city’s black community and erupted.
As public health officials watched cases rise in March, too many in the community shrugged off warnings. Rumors and conspiracy theories proliferated on social media, pushing the bogus idea that black people are somehow immune to the disease. And much of the initial focus was on international travel, so those who knew no one returning from Asia or Europe were quick to dismiss the risk.
Then, when the shelter-in-place order came, there was a natural pushback among those who recalled other painful government restrictions — including segregation and mass incarceration — on where black people could walk and gather.
“We’re like, ‘We have to wake people up,’” said Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik.
As the disease spread at a higher rate in the black community, it made an even deeper cut. Environmental, economic and political factors have compounded for generations, putting black people at higher risk of chronic conditions that leave lungs weak and immune systems vulnerable: asthma, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. In Milwaukee, simply being black means your life expectancy is 14 years shorter, on average, than someone white.
As of Friday morning, African Americans made up almost half of Milwaukee County’s 945 cases and 81% of its 27 deaths in a county whose population is 26% black. Milwaukee is one of the few places in the United States that is tracking the racial breakdown of people who have been infected by the novel coronavirus, offering a glimpse at the disproportionate destruction it is inflicting on black communities nationwide.
In Michigan, where the state’s population is 14% black, African Americans made up 35% of cases and 40% of deaths as of Friday morning. Detroit, where a majority of residents are black, has emerged as a hot spot with a high death toll. As has New Orleans. Louisiana has not published case breakdowns by race, but 40% of the state’s deaths have happened in Orleans Parish, where the majority of residents are black.
Illinois and North Carolina are two of the few areas publishing statistics on COVID-19 cases by race, and their data shows a disproportionate number of African Americans were infected.
“It will be unimaginable pretty soon,” said Dr. Celia J. Maxwell, an infectious disease physician and associate dean at Howard University College of Medicine, a school and hospital in Washington dedicated to the education and care of the black community. “And anything that comes around is going to be worse in our patients. Period. Many of our patients have so many problems, but this is kind of like the nail in the coffin.”
The poorest black neighborhoods, with the highest population density, with the least public health resources and most chronic health problems, dependent on mass transit or stuck in rural food deserts where we have to travel miles to get groceries, absolutely results in African-Americans being the most vulnerable to the virus and having the fewest options for dealing with travel restrictions and business and school closures.
There's little doubt in my mind that we'll look back on this and see that black neighborhoods had a mortality rate several times higher than the general US public, it's only a factor of what the multiplier will end up being.
Like every other instance of systemic racism in America, this one will be fatal.