I wrote an article entitled “Social Implications of a Medical Disease”about a month ago, just as the country began to slowly transition into shutdown. In it I asked readers to consider 15 ways in which COVID-19 would impact some more severely than others as a consequence of massive social disparity across race, class, ability, gender, and generation.
The very first consideration? — “Viruses don’t discriminate. The way in which we respond to viruses discriminates.” As COVID-19 demographic data trickles in from state and local health departments, it’s clear that I was totally wrong: viruses absolutely can discriminate, and COVID-19 is a racist as they come. In just the last week we’ve learned that black people are dying from COVID-related illness at a breathtaking rate.
Cities like Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, and New Orleans are all reporting over 70% of their respective COVID-19 deaths being among black people, with similar trends extending through the states at-large. In New York City, which boasts the most cases in the country, Blacks and Latinos are dying at twice the rate of white people and five to six times more than their respective population percentages. This time last week St. Louis was reporting that 100% of its known COVID-19 deaths are among African Americans.
ONE HUNDRED PERCENT?!
First, as a black man — this is deeply troubling and warrants nationwide outrage. Second, as a scientist — I know there is nothing about me biologically, or anatomically, or genetically that predisposes me to the coronavirus more so than anyone else. There’s also nothing about my blackness that makes me immune to it. In fact, most of the differences across the human race are on the outside and not the inside. Internally we are more alike than we are different, yet empire continues to erect monuments of oppression on the basis of what separates us.
Racist policies like red-lining, and voter suppression, and the war on drugs, and predatory sub-prime lending, and medicaid for some, and the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, and slavery; they’ve all had sneaky consequences. Consequences that look like food deserts which give way to obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Consequences that look a lot like ghettos in over-industrialized areas where pollution is high giving way to asthma and COPD. Consequences that resemble a police state which gives way to a constant state of trauma and stress. Consequences that look like majority of black people in this country residing in the very states that enslaved them 400 years ago, under the leadership of the very people determined to keep them enslaved, through disenfranchisement in the classroom, and the boardroom, and the courtroom, and the emergency room.
It’s no coincidence that the Southern region of the country, where the largest population of African Americans live, also accounts for the poorest people with the poorest health outcomes in states where medicaid expansion is desperately needed but consistently rejected by the respective governments. So you’ll find it no surprise that these same states are now ground zero for a national coronavirus epidemic that emerged in coastal areas of the U.S. just two months ago.
Mississippi has the highest rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the country and will be short over 250 hospital beds when the amount of cases their healthcare infrastructure can sustain peaks by the end of April. South Carolina and Oklahoma won’t be far behind. All these states have been slow to issue stay-at-home orders and all share a common political ideology that has been no friend to black people.
Believe me when I say that it’s not a mistake that people of color have been disproportionately affected by the novel coronavirus. It’s by design. Oppression is black people’s preexisting condition and it has empowered a racist biological agent in COVID-19 that thrives on the extreme social inequities that existed long before the pandemic. If we gain nothing else from this moment, I hope we gain truth — truth that the real dis-ease killing us is inequality. The Rev. Dr. Martin. Luther King Jr. said it this way, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death.” He went on to say “I see no alternative to direct action and creative nonviolence to raise the conscience of the nation.”
King was right when he said it 54 years ago and he’d be right today: of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health IS the most shocking and the most inhuman. Until we deal with the inhumanity of inequality, infectious diseases like COVID-19 will continue to be lingering and debilitating symptoms of a much larger cancer. Mark MLK’s words — if we don’t take direct action and creative nonviolence to raise the conscience of the nation — it will be at the expense of a lot of good people, dying in a bad system determined to maintain the status quo.
If in fact we are all experiencing this dis-ease together as many would have us believe, then we all must be entitled to the same healing — together. UBtheCURE you wish to see in the world, so we can be the cure the most vulnerable among us deserve.