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Race rises to the forefront for activists in the coronavirus pandemic

“Those higher mortality rates are rooted in structural inequalities that have existed for decades.”
Image: COVID-19 patients arrive to the Wakefield Campus of the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y.
COVID-19 patients arrive to the Wakefield Campus of the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y., on April 6, 2020.John Moore / Getty Images

When COVID-19 first started to spread across the United States three months ago, urban myths, fueled by bad information and social media, pushed the self-serving theory that African Americans were not being severely affected -- or were less likely to be infected -- by the coronavirus.

Fast forward to the present, as mortality rates skyrocket and the virus has taken hold with a vengeance -- particularly among African Americans.

“Race is in the place,” said Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League. “From fake information that this disease would not affect African Americans to the numbers of deaths that we are seeing. We call on the CDC in each and every state to gather accurate information on every person who has been infected and those who have unfortunately passed.”

Marc Morial, CEO of The National Urban League
Marc Morial, CEO of The National Urban League.Courtesy National Urban League

Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans, was a featured speaker on a virtual town hall convened Thursday by the New York Urban League, and moderated by its president and CEO, Arva Rice.

A spate of recent media reports has highlighted staggering numbers:

In Louisiana, where African Americans account for 32 percent of the population, they account for 70 percent of the COVID-19 deaths; in Michigan, African Americans are 13 percent of the population, but account for 40 percent of coronavirus deaths; and in Chicago, African Americans are dying from coronavirus at six times the rate of whites.

According to preliminary data from New York City, which is now the epicenter of the virus globally, coronavirus is killing African Americans and Latinos at twice the rate of white residents.

Image: Tri-State EMS Workers Confront Growing Number Of Coronavirus Cases
Paramedic Randy Lilly puts a surgical mask on an African American patient showing COVID-19 symptoms in his apartment in Stamford, Conn., on April 4, 2020.John Moore / Getty Images

While many white politicians have been gasping at the stark statistics, those who have been sounding the alarm for years about the systemic problems that adversely affect African American and other communities of color that tie them to the bottom rungs of every social, economic and medical index are now amping up their response to give context to the pandemic’s realities.

Civic, social, economic and political organizations such as New York Urban League and My Brother's Keeper, established by then-President Barack Obama, are mobilizing to combat any lingering false information, and answering questions about why African American and other communities of color, such as Native Americans, are being so disproportionately affected.

“Those higher mortality rates are rooted in structural inequalities that have existed for decades,” J. Nadine Gracia, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Trust for America’s Health, said on a virtual town hall organized by My Brother’s Keeper. “Access to health care and treatment; food insecurity; access to healthy affordable foods. All of this is connected to health and well being.”

As of Friday, across the U.S., there were more than 470,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and more than 17,000 deaths associated with the disease.

Cecilia Munoz, who worked in the Obama administration and now serves as vice president, public interest technology and local initiatives for New America, said that the pandemic has “exposed a lot of things that we know and is upending long-held notions of who are essential workers.”

“Who’s still out there working, not like me staring at my computer all day long? Who’s out there in the workforce giving it their all? Janitors, caregivers, grocery store workers, first responders and of course hospital workers,” she said. “Someone is out there driving those buses and trains.”

Many of those Munoz referred to are black and brown workers, civil servants, those in the service industry, who are invisible in plain sight and are now being hailed as vital and heroic.

“We have to work to make sure what is a living wage for folks like these,” added Munoz. “Fifteen or $20 per hour, because they are literally keeping us alive.”

Some have been blunter, saying that physical distancing and stay-at-home orders are privileges that some can’t afford to heed and don’t go far enough in protecting communities.

“We have had a failure on every level of government, period!” said Jumaane Williams, New York City’s public advocate, on the Urban League call. “There was never a plan put in place for the most vulnerable populations. Seventy percent of those essential workers are black and Latino. I didn’t expect much from Donald Trump, who has shown he doesn’t care about vulnerable populations.”

“Every step of the way we have been so far behind,” he said. “We should have shut down the city and been utilizing the Emergency Broadcast System and zoned the city so we could deliver food to those who needed it.”

Williams has been critical of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, who has been hailed for his leadership during the outbreak and his measured and empathetic daily televised briefings. But Williams points out that before the five-alarm crisis, Cuomo had proposed cuts to Medicaid, which for many poor and working-class New Yorkers facilitates their access to basic health care.

Participants on both town halls admitted that this was just the beginning of looking at all the issues, from the woeful lack of comprehensive, national testing to what is in the $2 trillion rescue/relief bill, and the crafting and implementing of sea-change solutions.

“It has exposed how we have failed as a society and shown the way we stand up for each other,” said Munoz of the pandemic. “Who do we want to be going forward as a society? That’s an opportunity.”

Morial, not normally given to hyperbole, echoed Muñoz: “This is World War III in its magnitude and scope, and the way it has altered our lives.”