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New Policies Needed to Protect Vulnerable Black Population from COVID-19

The news on COVID-19 keeps coming in, and it does not look good for many Southern states. Even low-population Mississippi logged more than 1,000 coronavirus infections in one day in late June, up from a daily average of about 400, which sent state officials into a panic.

This bodes badly for Black Americans in these states, who are increasingly catching the brunt of infections— often through no fault of their own. A Washington Post poll noted that Black Americans are much more likely than other races to know someone who has died of the coronavirus. In fact, a Washington Post-Ipsos poll discovered that more than 30 percent of Black respondents said they personally know someone who has died from the virus, compared with 17 percent of adults who are Hispanic and only 9 percent of respondents who are white. The numbers are even more stark in terms of non-lethal cases, with more than half of Black Americans interviewed claiming they know at least one person who has gotten sick or died of COVID-19, versus fewer than 4 in 10 of white respondents.

In contrast to popular opinion, the viral hit among Black residents is not necessarily limited to senior citizens either. One study arranged COVID-19 mortality rates by racial/ethnic group and age and discovered that Black people had a virus mortality rate many times that of white people, even among victims aged 35-44.

Moderators recorded that the white group aged 35-44 years experienced 183 deaths in a population of 23.7 million. That same age group for Blacks recorded 378 COVID-19-related deaths among a population of only 5.4 million. If you count the number of productive years up until the age of 65 that were cut short by Covid-19 in that survey you get an average 2.6 years lost from the White population. Among the Black population, however, that amounts to 23.4 years.

How are Black people so susceptible to COVID-19 illness and death? It has a lot to do with personal health, but even more to do with life situations. Black Americans are more likely to be impoverished than white Americans in this country. They’re also more likely to fill “essential worker” jobs, such as grocery store workers, nursing home care workers, postal workers, restaurant workers, delivery workers and bus drivers. Many don’t have the luxury to work from home, which makes them easy targets in any pandemic. Poverty also adds to the problem, since low-income people are less likely to invest in overpriced U.S. medical care in the pivotal early stages of infection.

Photo courtesy Gabrielle Perry

New Orleans epidemiologist Gabrielle Perry said that Black Americans are also more likely to suffer some form of morbidity that makes them more susceptible to contracting and ultimately succumbing to the virus. Morbidity elements include heart disease, diabetes and other ailments, and they more frequently affect African-Americans, in addition to other illnesses such as chronic pain and depression—of which Blacks commonly adopt a “grin and bear it” mentality, for various reasons. Perry added that COVID-19 victims with heart disease have a one in 10 chance of dying from it.

Perry then referenced medical racism, which the pandemic has made painfully obvious. Studies note a disparity in doctors’ and medical professionals’ treatment of Black patients. One witness acknowledged in an article how medical students were quick to side with floor nurses in a scenario where a 140-pound Black woman having a manic episode was restrained because they deemed the patient a threat. Comparatively, an elderly white man assaulted three different staff members a week earlier in the same ward before finally being moved to a locked room. Security, they claim, was not called until the third incident.

Implicit bias and microaggressions are rampant in the nation’s medical wards, whether it is in the form of a white nurse offhandedly ordering a wailing Black mother in childbirth to “stop shouting,” or a nurse practitioner’s failure to inform a Black patient of a diagnosis of anemia, despite the diagnosis being obvious in the patient’s medical tests.

Rebekah Gee, MD is an obstetrician and gynecologist, and serves as director of the Louisiana State University Health System in New Orleans. Gee has been pushing initiatives addressing racial disparities in maternal health, and admitted in one interview that nobody should be caught off guard by the racial disparity in Covid-19 deaths, especially considering the U.S. medical field’s bad history with Black patients.

“I mean if you’re not shocked by four or five Black women dying for every white woman that dies in childbirth, I don’t know what would wake you up,” Gee told reporters. “If this is it, great – and certainly every moment is a moment for learning – but these COVID-19 disparities should not be surprising to people who have been looking at data.”

Perry had some suggestions on how to deal with the comparatively high death rate among Black people, although she admitted it was difficult to put any more responsibility on the Black population.

“The vulnerable population is already doing all it can, washing hands, wearing masks, carrying hand sanitizer and trying to stay inside as much as possible,” Perry said. “It’s really up to the government and media as to how these things are being framed.”

Everybody needs to wear masks, regularly wash their hands and avoid public gatherings. The problem with this, however, is that white people appear to be protesting masks and cleanliness for political reasons. The fix for this, she said, is to focus less on punitive gloom and doom arguments.

“Telling everybody that you’re a terrible person for not wearing a mask every day and telling grown people what to do is feeding into the conspiracy that you’re taking people’s freedoms away and all that other stuff,” she said. “It needs to be framed as more of a harm reduction solution, like ‘hey, putting your mask on has a really good chance of reducing cases, and we won’t have to be in social isolation for long.”

Perry suggested selling the argument for masks and sanitizer in the same enlightened way that civilized societies deal with the opioid crises, by “being less harsh with it.”

“Think of it the same way as the opioid crisis is being handled. As opposed to over-policing people and arresting everybody for doing drugs, the government (began) funding needle exchange program(s) and methadone clinics for people seeking treatment. A harm reduction narrative really does work.”

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