This morning I had the heart wrenching task of taking my dad to get tested for the novel coronavirus. We went to a private facility in a mountainous region of new jersey where when we showed up, a sign on the door read:
“Please stay in your car for Covid-19 test. Call our office and someone will come outside to meet you”.
After doing what the sign instructed, about three minutes later we were greeted by a woman in what I could only describe as a hazmat suit. She walked around to the passenger side of the car, where my dad was, gave him a waiver to sign, then proceeded to swab both his left and right nostril.
Upon completion of the test she said the results would be in, in three days and she sent us on our way. This was the closest known encounter I’ve had with the coronavirus to date, and while I hope and pray my father’s test results come back negative, there are a lot of people especially in black and Latinx communities of whom that has not been the case.
Minorities across America are being devastated by coronavirus; so much so, that state officials are being urged to release demographic data on the virus. And while information is still trickling in state by state, some of the preliminary data suggests that minority groups are in Covid-19’s line of fire. In New York, the epicenter of the virus, Latinx make up 34% of deaths, the highest in the state. African Americans come in second, making up 28% of deaths.
In new Jersey, while demographic data has yet to be released, 97% of 40% of deaths include people who had a comorbidity of heart disease and or diabetes; two conditions that disproportionately affect minority communities. And In cities and states like Chicago, Philadelphia, Louisiana, Michigan, and Mississippi, black localities are seeing mortality rates of up to 71%. While these numbers are alarming, by themselves, they do not fully depict the conditions these people groups are facing.
Black and Latinx People are the Essential Workforce
Since the U.S. economic shut down, the only people who have been working are those in lines of work that are deemed essential services. Combined, Black and Latinx people make up a majority portion of the essential workforce; These workers are on the front lines encountering numerous amounts of people every day. In addition to that, a lot of the roles that these individuals fill are considered “low level” service jobs, requiring them to be in constant close proximity with other individuals who may be asymptomatic carriers of Covid-19.
These workers are also in a uniquely complicated situation where a lot of them do not have two weeks’ worth of paid sick leave if they did catch the virus. Working under these conditions makes it difficult if not impossible to properly social distance, puts not only that individual, but their family and community that they come home to at risk, and requires them to make difficult ethical decisions about their own livelihood and the livelihood of others.
Access to Healthcare and Testing
Another concern for Black and Latinx people, is their access to healthcare. In 2018 it was reported that 3.9 million African Americans, and 10.2 million Hispanics were uninsured. This is challenging because outside of not having access to healthcare in general; even though Covid-19 testing is free, treatment for one person can cost north of $35,000.
Correspondingly, over 22 million Americans have lost their job in the last month; and nearly half of Americans receive insurance benefits from their employment. As this relates to coronavirus, statistically, people without health insurance will be less likely to seek care/go to the emergency room and will be less likely to get tested.
Detroit Michigan for example, where their population is 83% black, is currently facing a ramped spike in Covid-19 cases. The state as a whole has 29,263 confirmed cases and 2,093 deaths with the lion’s share (13,002 cases, 981 deaths) coming from Detroit. Hospitals in Detroit are facing an occupancy of 70% to 80% of patients with covid-19, are dangerously understaffed, and are struggling to provide proper care to patients with poor health and preexisting conditions.
Covid-19 and Systemic Racism
The vulnerability of the Jail and Prison Population
A clear picture of how much impact the coronavirus is having on minority communities cannot be painted without addressing systemic racism; specifically, the jail and prison system.
Black and Latinx people make up 12% and 16% of the American population respectively, and America incarcerates more people than any other developed country in the world. Of those respective populations, black people make up 33% and Latinx people 23% of the incarcerated population. Moreover, these two people groups are locked up at an alarmingly disproportionate rate comparatively, to their white counter parts, for petty nonviolent crimes.
As this relates to Covid-19, jails are becoming a petri dish for the disease. In addition to being in close proximity to one another, jail systems struggle to provide adequate healthcare for inmates, on days when the country is not going through a pandemic. The most infamous example of this right now is Cook County jail in Chicago Illinois.
The Cook County jail currently has the largest single-site outbreak of Covid-19 in the country. Among its 4,435 prisoners, over 500 officers and detainees have tested positive for coronavirus, giving Cook County Jail one of if not the highest infection rates in the country. And they’re the rule not the exception.
The Potential Implicit Racism of Face Masks
Lastly, lets talk about face masks. Here is an excerpt from the Times magazine from article written on March 4th 2020:
“The science, according to the CDC, says that surgical masks won’t stop the wearer from inhaling small airborne particles, which can cause infection. Nor do these masks form a snug seal around the face. The CDC recommends surgical masks only for people who already show symptoms of coronavirus and must go outside…
The CDC also does not recommend N95 respirators—the tight-fitting masks designed to filter out 95% of particles from the air that you breathe—for use, except for health care workers. Doctors and health experts keep spreading the word. “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!” tweeted Dr. Jerome Adams, the U.S. Surgeon General, on Feb. 29. “They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”
In an interview with Fox & Friends, Adams said that wearing a mask can even increase your risk of getting the virus. “Folks who don’t know how to wear them properly tend to touch their faces a lot and actually can increase the spread of coronavirus.””(Oaklander, 2020)
The Ramifications of an Ever Changing Narrative
On April 3rd the CDC flipped on this issue. After reiterating for a month straight that masks were ineffective, they said the following:
the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity—for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing—even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms. In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.
Now, I’m not a health professional nor do I claim to be however, it is important that light is shed on the ramifications of this flip flop of information on minority communities. The reason I suggest flip flop as opposed to a “new development” is because, the facts of the ineffectiveness of masks has not changed. They are still the most insufficient way to protect oneself from catching the coronavirus. Unless an individual has access to an N95 respirator they are not adequately protected.
Furthermore, the nation is facing a mask shortage. Proper face mask etiquette is to only use it once and replace it per use. I know personally; I do not even have a two weeks’ worth supply of masks let alone a month’s worth.
The CDC has released guidelines on how to make cloth masks, yet once again we face the question of effectiveness. If a surgical mask that a person cannot get enough of to replace daily is all but useless, how much more effective is a cloth mask that quite frankly, for those who use them, probably are not cleaned and sterilized daily?
Why All of this Matters
Black and Latinx people who do not have proper face protection run the risk of being turned away from essential services. In my own community, essential businesses have started enforcing a no mask no service policy. Such enforcements can encourage prejudice practices.
Businesses could potentially identify the type of masks they allow in their establishments. If a person does not have a surgical mask for example, as opposed to a cloth one, a business could try to deny service under the guise of “public health”. Black or Latinx who wear cloth masks could also run the risk of being followed or racially profiled. And as outrageous as it may sound some of these things are already starting to take place.
For Black and Latinx people in America, the Coronavirus is a pandemic on top of several other pandemics that have been taking place in these communities for decades. From employment disparities, to poor or limited access to healthcare, the coronavirus is exacerbating systemic inequality in such a way, that even after this pandemic is over, it is going to be a long road to recovery.
It is important for us to blow the whistle and spotlight the problems taking place now and implore our leadership to mobilize. As Dr. King so famously said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
Join the conversation and share your perspective in the comment section below!