By Chinta Strausberg
Former Illinois Department of Public Health Director and Retired Colonel Dr. Damon Arnold blames the spread of COVID-19 among African Americans on the overcrowding of housing conditions, the low wage jobs, the reliance on public transportation and underlying structural racism in these communities.
The impact of this virus affecting African Americans is twice as dire, according to Dr. Arnold.
African Americans make up 13 percent of Illinois’ population, compared to whites at 60.9 percent, Hispanics at 10.8 percent and Asians at 5.6 percent. However, Dr. Arnold, who holds a M.D., a M.A. and a M.P.H., said Blacks are experiencing numbers out of proportion to the death rate if COVID-19 were affecting each of these racial groups in a proportionate way.
Based on his data, Arnold gave as an example statistics from July 14, 2020, where the number of whites, who represented 60.9 percent of the population, had a total number of deaths of 7,193 on that day. In calculating that, he said the expected number of deaths would have been 4,380.5, but the actual number of deaths was 3,219, which is about 1,000 less than what officials would have expected based on that population.
But, when he looked at African Americans, who represented 13.8 of the population, if you multiply that with the total number of deaths of 7,193, officials would have expected 992.6 deaths. “The actual number was 1,998 deaths, which is more than 1,000 more deaths than we were expecting [which would be] a total based on the percentage of the population.”
Arnold blamed this rise of COVID-19 deaths among African Americans on “population density and underlying structural racism, which has to do with transportation, inadequate housing and low wage-earning jobs where people are more exposed to the general public.”
As a result, Arnold concluded, “We now are facing the devastating consequences of those social conditions, because COVID-19 is able to spread faster in a more densely populated area, whereas in many of the other counties the population has less density and more land between the housing units that are based on those populations.
“As a result, the virus spreads at a much slower rate and there is more access to health care measures and more social distancing,” Arnold explained. Over time, he said even though those areas where the population density isn’t as high as was seen initially, “we are now seeing the spread of this virus in those populations as well.”
“All 102 counties within the state (of Illinois) now have cases of COVID-19. The underlying reason why this spread so quickly within the African American population is due to overcrowding of housing conditions, the low wage-earning jobs and the reliance on public transportation in these communities,” according to Arnold.
Arnold also conducted two tours of combat duty in Iraq and served 26 years in the U.S. Army National Guard as the Commander of the Joint Medical Command and State Surgeon General for 12 years. He was awarded the prestigious Military Legion of Merit Medal from President Barack Obama, and is also the recipient of a M.A. in Homeland and Defense Security Studies.
Providing and monitoring health care are his passions, especially given this pandemic that is “twice as dire” and disproportionally taking the lives of African Americans. COVID-19, he said, “has little to do with the underlying genetic makeup of people who are in these communities. It is more of a scientifically based phenomena related to the special circumstances people find themselves in.”
“When we start looking at what are the consequences of having poor nutrition, poor access to health care, we start seeing a higher incidence and prevalence of chronic medical conditions and poor health. As a result, those people who do become infected with COVID-19 are then more likely to suffer the consequences of having been infected,” Arnold added.
And, now there is a propensity toward people 50 years and older having more serious consequences of becoming infected with COVID-19, which, Arnold said, “is in effect to lose your life. It’s death.”
“As a result, we’ve got to make sure we are protecting our senior citizens, many of whom are people who own businesses, our faith-based leaders, our doctors and nurses, our college professors and elementary school teachers and those who are able to restore the normal functioning of our basic community infrastructure.”
With fall just around the corner, Arnold warned, “We have to pay attention to getting the seasonal influenza vaccination early. We should be doing that now because we do not want to have a surge of cases of influenza in the fall. The normal timeframe for getting a seasonal influenza vaccination is October/November, but I have been pushing to get those vaccinations started in August.”
He has worked with faith-based institutions, drugstores like Walgreens and health care centers, along with the Illinois Department of Public Health “to make sure that our communities are starting to get these vaccinations early and also COVID-19 testing.”
Arnold said there are also higher incidents of death due to opioid abuse. “We are seeing a 40 percent increase in our communities. It is important to focus on that aspect, as well as on making sure our people in our communities are safe and to make sure they have access to adequate health care.”
Arnold added: “COVID-19 is having a devastating impact and it continues. We are not out of this yet, and we have to make sure that we go forward with the correct approach to saving the lives of African Americans, Hispanics, Asian and Native Americans and white people as well.”
The coronavirus, he said, “transcends race and it needs to be addressed as a scientific issue, not one with fake news and not one that is politically motivated.”
When reminded that Trump is urging pharmaceuticals to rush and have a coronavirus vaccine available by November 1, which is two days before the November 3 presidential election, Arnold said, “If that vaccine becomes available, it has to be done with the utmost efficiency to make sure we have both efficacy and safety. It has to be effective, and it has to be safe.”
Asked what can he tell our youth who are tired of wearing masks, Arnold warned, “I was a combat veteran. I had to wear 40-60 pounds of body armor when I was in Iraq and so did the soldiers next to me. That protected us from taking the consequences of death on the battlefield.
“A mask weighs only a few ounces, and it’s going to be worn for a shorter period of time than a regular tour in Iraq or in Afghanistan,” he stated. “It is your duty to protect your fellow citizens here at home. You can actually spread the virus to your family members and cause the death, especially of your parents and grandparents.
“It is essential for you to wear it because they do not know where this disease is going, and it may have long-term implications even to you.” Arnold told youth to “just wear your mask. It protects you. It protects your family, and it protects the person you inadvertently walk by that you give the virus to.
“You can be asymptomatic” and give the virus to someone who then carries it “to their child who may be in an Intensive Care Unit where the child is being treated for cancer and you cause” the transmission of the virus then can cause death.
Asked why does this virus seek the most vulnerable, especially those with pre-existing conditions, Dr. Arnold explained, “We are all susceptible to this virus. This virus can spread among healthy people, those with chronic medical conditions, irrespective of what their underlying health status is.
“The reason why you see it in people with chronic diseases who are coming in is because it has more consequences for them, not necessarily more prone to catching the virus. You see the results of someone who is already ill who gets this virus, which is why it is so important to protect people with chronic medical conditions,” Dr. Arnold said.
“The person who is asymptomatic may not know they had it, but it does not necessarily mean that it won’t have an effect on them in the long-term. In the short-term the people who are most susceptible to its chronic negative affect are those people who are exposed to the virus and had chronic medical conditions that gave them the worse outcome,” Arnold explained.
Based on his study, Arnold said, “As time goes on, this thing is going to start showing up more in the white communities than it has so far. People do not realize that this virus does not see race. All this virus sees is someone who hasn’t taken the precautions, partying having a big barbecue.”
He is waiting for the results when Trump had a big rally where he told people not to wear masks and people “were shoulder-to-shoulder. They were yelling and chanting.”
“Ultimately what will happen is that group will suffer the consequences of what they did. I have already heard that some of those people who were in that rally were positive going into the rally. That is an ominous sign. This virus does not respect geo-political lines,” Dr. Arnold said.
The Rona Reports are stories of Black resilience in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. As one of Chicago’s Black newspapers with a citywide distribution our mission is to provide readers with factual news and in-depth coverage of its impact in the Black community. The Rona Report is funded by the Facebook Journalism Project Community Network grant.