As more black Americans die from coronavirus, community leaders are taking action

With coronavirus disproportionately affecting black Americans, community leaders are critical of the lack of federal response.
Image: New York City Fire Department and Emergency Medical Technicians lift a man after moving him from a nursing home into an ambulance
Numbers released by the CDC earlier this month made clear the staggering volume of the coronavirus deaths and the virus’ disproportionate toll on black Americans. Lucas Jackson / Reuters

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By Janell Ross

The Rev. Michael McBride has several jobs: He’s the pastor of The Way Christian Center in Berkeley, California, the co-founder of the Black Church PAC and the national director of the Live Free Campaign, a social justice initiative made up of faith leaders and congregations. Recently, however, he has also been working as one of the lead coordinators of Masks for the People, a black faith community effort to reduce the number of black people dying of the coronavirus.

McBride has had a crash course on supply chains, distribution networks and the challenges of bulk purchasing masks, hand sanitizer and more.

“We are crafting a black emergency supply chain,” he said of the group, which is also working to distribute accurate health information to hard-hit predominantly black neighborhoods, and jails, around the country.

Numbers released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month made clear the staggering volume of the coronavirus deaths and the virus’ disproportionate toll on black Americans. But, for many black Americans — in particular, those who research or do other work around health and wealth disparities — the official response, thus far, has been woefully inadequate.

As a result, some are shaping programs and crafting what they see as a more direct and focused response.

“It is, quite frankly, a sign of utter privilege to be shocked by what has happened,” McBride said. “What is astounding to me and I think some of the organizers I know is that as we are hearing that our loved ones are not only at the highest risk of infection and death but that in many places we are also having a hard time getting access to care, access to basic preventative tools.”

Masks for the People has raised about $1.5 million as of mid-April and received its first shipment of 20,000 masks this week, with more expected by week’s end. The organization has also found domestic sources for masks and hand sanitizer and will soon begin distributing both items at transit stations, near stores and other locations in hard-hit neighborhoods across the country. They will do so with the help of two groups considered essential service providers right now: people working as violence disruptors and black churches with assistance programs, such as food banks.

“The numbers are really only a concrete indictment of the leadership of the federal government, the leadership of Donald Trump and the lack of preventative care that African Americans have at all times in this country,” McBride said. “What we are going to do is leverage the existing infrastructure of black religious communities and existing anti-gun violence networks to help the the places and people who need it most. If we don’t, who will?”

Organizers are concerned that if conditions grow worse in many cities, police or the National Guard could become the primary point of contact for infection control measures. In Philadelphia, police dragged a black man by his feet off a city bus for defying a mandate that all passengers don a mask before riding. Philadelphia’s mayor said he had no problem with the way police handled the situation. The city’s mandate was rescinded then reinstated by statewide order from the governor, who along with the governors of New York, Connecticut and Maryland recommended “face coverings,” per CDC guidance.

For nearly 50 years, researchers in multiple disciplines have documented vast racial disparities in health, said Dr. Crystal Cené, a physician and associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

Multiple studies have found that during the 1918 flu pandemic, black Americans were less likely to become infected but those infected were more likely to die because of the share who had lungs scarred by tuberculosis, were often forced to live in overcrowded conditions, had more limited access to health care and exposure to other diseases such as malaria. Today, a disproportionate number of black Americans have high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma and heart disease — conditions often created or made worse by poverty and unequal treatment in the health care system. Those conditions also make them more vulnerable to dying from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. But there’s little evidence that officials anywhere crafted pandemic response plans that focused resources on black Americans.

“Even now that this data is out there, so much of the conversation has been, ‘Wow, look at theses numbers,’ and, ‘Let’s analyze these numbers,’ and ‘Well, African Americans suffer disproportionately from pre-existing conditions or live in more dense communities which make them vulnerable to this disease,’” Cené said.

“It’s the language of individual behaviors and individual conditions," Cené continued, "of symptoms rather than a diagnosis and plan of action to address what I see as the core diseases: structural racism and white privilege, which makes it difficult for those in power to see how they are benefitting from the systems of power and structures that create and perpetuate health inequities.”

Many black Americans live in dense communities because of the ramifications of decades of unequal education, housing segregation and ongoing discrimination, as well as difficulties getting the kinds of jobs where employees can work from home or are paid a living wage and provided health insurance. Black and Latino Americans are more likely than white and Asian Americans to be uninsured, to receive little to no preventative health care and to receive lower-quality care when they do see a doctor. All of that can also create chronic stress, which weakens the immune system and the ability to heal.

“When the president said we need to look more into the reasons, I thought, look, we know the reasons,” Cené said. “What are you and other public officials going to do about it?”

In the last week, Cené has found herself on multiple calls where she’s been both heartened by the ideas proposed but also disturbed by the telling biases on display. She said one colleague — a medical doctor — insisted that the nation’s black death rate from the coronavirus has a biological explanation, something inherent to “black genes.”

On Cené’s list of immediate things that could be done: a mass expansion of testing and deploying students in a number of disciplines — sociology, social work, medicine, public health and others — to call and educate or check in with people with pre-existing conditions that make them vulnerable, potentially putting them in touch with doctors via telemedicine.

Ample and rapid financial support should be offered to those who need it and access to services should be coordinated to reduce time outside the home, Cené said. For instance, drive up testing centers should also become points of connection for financial aid, food assistance, accurate information about the virus and serve as space to social distance if a family member is ill, Cené said. Entire armies of trusted community figures such as pastors, beauticians and barbers should provide accurate health and aid information via phone calls and web connections.

But funding those actions requires government support, she said.

“To borrow an analogy ... if you had a lake where one or two fish died, you might assume the fish were ill,” Cené said. “But if you had a lake where there was a massive fish kill or multiple lakes where thousands of fish died, you know there may be something wrong with the water. You do not simply bring in more fish and carry on. You address the systemic problem. You do something about the water.”

In New York City, the public hospital system will open five new testing sites Friday in mostly black and Latino neighborhoods. Chicago has instituted a curfew and more strict enforcement of social distancing procedures inside essential stores.

But black Americans make up large shares of the workforce who cannot remain at home or have already lost their jobs due to the virus.

While black Americans make up about 13 percent of the nation’s total population, they are about 36 percent of the nation’s postal service clerks and 20 percent of its letter carriers. They are nearly 20 percent of all cashiers and stockers, and 37 percent of home health care aides. The black unemployment rate hit 6.6 percent in March, nearly twice the white unemployment rate.

“You can’t be mad about people not social distancing and being on the train when, if they don’t go to work, they will be homeless,” said Frederick Joseph, an author and marketer who has raised and donated $40,000 to New York City’s food bank network since coronavirus-related layoffs began.

Frederick, who grew up poor just outside of New York City, knows that even relatively small amounts of money might help people remain housed, keep the lights on, pay for prescriptions or hand sanitizer.

Two weeks ago, he and a small group of volunteers began making emergency, direct cash grants via apps to those who have lost jobs or income due to the pandemic. So far, the group has given away about 900 grants averaging $200 each to people who have made direct requests to Frederick on social media. Some share images of empty and almost empty pill bottles of life-sustaining drugs, overdue phone and electricity bills and other urgent needs. One single mother who lost her job due to the pandemic had $4 in the bank — less than can be withdrawn from an ATM — and no food left at home. When it seems necessary, the group does some sleuthing to verify the person’s identity and needs.

But, Frederick said, lately he’s been troubled by three things: the number of black people who have suggested that he and the group should turn the roughly $180,000 they have raised for the relief fund over to some existing nonprofit, the absence of targeted and swift government aid for the most vulnerable, and the number of black people who have adopted the country’s obsessive concern about potential fraud perpetrated by the desperately poor.

“It’s possible, of course, but to be honest, in my view, if you would go to all that trouble to [de]fraud someone out of $200, you probably really need it anyway,” Frederick said. “And

for those who do need it, you know that you have probably already applied for all the things you can, but unemployment, cash assistance, none of that is designed to put money in the bank to help you feed your children today.”