New York City, NY — When I first heard about the racial disparities in coronavirus mortality rates, I wasn’t surprised in the slightest. I knew it was only a matter of time before the articles would come out. Systemic inequities show up everywhere, whether it’s in education, healthcare, maternal health or school discipline and without fail, they highlight glaring discrepancies related to race.
That said, the statistics are still jarring. While we're only starting to see coronavirus data broken down by race, several state attorneys general are calling out the disparities. Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford, the first black elected official to hold that position, told The Hill he takes particular notice of the racial disparity as he himself is African-American. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel echoed these sentiments, tweeting: “when you advocate against universal healthcare, a living wage, paid sick leave, public education and environmental regulations, the virus disproportionately impacts communities of color and black Americans get sick and die at exponentially higher rates.”
My mother is both a worker on the frontlines fighting the coronavirus and she is African-American, heightening her risk of contracting the disease. She's a manager at a pediatrician’s office and is interacting with dozens of patients each day. In addition, we live in New York City, widely considered the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. Every morning when she leaves for work, I feel both pride in knowing how brave my mother is and a bit of sadness, as I take into account all the factors that make her chances of getting sick with coronavirus especially high. I go into each day not knowing if I will get a call saying she must self-quarantine and won’t be coming home.
New York Attorney General Letitia James is calling on her state to work harder to track racial patterns related to the pandemic. Preliminary numbers from New York State’s Department of Health reveal that in New York City 34 percent of coronavirus deaths were Hispanics and 28 percent were blacks, despite each group making up 29 percent and 22 percent of the city's population respectively. On a statewide level, 14 percent of coronavirus deaths were Hispanic and 18 percent were black, despite each group making up 12 percent and 9 percent of the population statewide.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who is leading the nation’s fight against COVID-19, said “health disparities have always existed for the African American community” and this crisis is just “shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is.“
While it is great that the nation’s leading infectious disease expert is acknowledging this reality, it isn’t enough for Dr. Fauci and other high-profile figures who can actually make a difference in this disparity only to acknowledge COVID-19’s disproportionate effect on black and brown communities. Racial disparities in our healthcare system are widely known and have been for very long time, as evident in the publication of the Institute of Medicine’s "Unequal Treatment" report in 2003. But the topic hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention.
I want our leaders and experts to feel compelled to come up with solutions.
The falsehood that black people are immune to coronavirus only shattered once actor Idris Elba announced he contracted it. Immunity myths claimed that black worshippers could not be infected at a church where a pastor conducted in-person services or that there were no coronavirus infections in Africa. The dangerous fallacy of black immunity may have put a lot of black people, overrepresented in suffering from underlying health conditions like heart disease, asthma and diabetes, at serious risk of contracting COVID-19.
There is nothing mythical about my mother modifying sleeveless patient gowns to keep her fellow staff safe while navigating the frontlines of coronavirus care.
Racial disparities need to be highlighted while coronavirus consumes the news cycle. I want to see the most visible leaders — President Trump, Dr. Fauci, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo — take action specifically in support of black and brown communities. Since Trump and Cuomo insist on dominating the spotlight with briefings and conferences, I implore them to lay out even a sketch of a plan to address this particular aspect of the crisis.
Otherwise, once the news cycle moves on, and it will, no real change will be enacted. These racial disparities are not new or even recently uncovered. For many of us, they were expected, commonplace. The time to act is now, while people are paying attention and we have a chance to change outcomes for the most vulnerable communities hit hardest by this disease.
Condolences from leaders feel superficial, especially when families like mine watch our loved ones leave the house each morning to fight coronavirus and hope it doesn’t hit even closer to home.