By Delmarie Cobb
The disparity between the death rate of African Americans and whites from COVID-19 isn’t surprising to anyone Black. Nearly 400 years of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, disinvestment, economic segregation and disinterest is a recipe for mass deaths.
The only thing different from this pandemic and the one Black people face every day is it’s an invisible killer. We can see the ravages of America’s public policy decisions for Black people every day. All anyone has to do is tour Chicago’s South and West sides. The stark disparities between the city’s Black communities and white communities are no different in Chicago than they are in Danville, Springfield, Kankakee, Decatur and Peoria. In a USA Today article, last year, these six Illinois cities were listed among the 15 worst for Black Americans.
So far, 60 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths are Black people. In Chicago, 60 percent of patients dying from the novel coronavirus are Black.
By now, you’ve probably heard the saying: When white America gets a cold, Black America gets pneumonia. That’s a well-worn saying and belief among Black people all over America. The COVID-19 pandemic is proof that like most sayings, it’s rooted in truth.
A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 31 percent of Black people, 43 percent of Latinos and 18 percent of whites believe they’ll get the coronavirus and require hospitalization. When the same group was asked if they personally know someone who has been hospitalized or died as a result of having COVID-19, 27 percent of Black people, 13 percent of Latinos and 13 percent of whites answered yes.
When news hit that COVID-19 was killing Black people disproportionately, one of the city’s infectious disease experts said that while the data are sad and unfortunate, it’s not unexpected.
Dr. Oluwatoyin M. Adeyemi:
We talk about equality, but we have to go beyond equality to equity. Equality is giving everybody the same thing. Equity is giving people what they need to achieve the same outcomes. We know that populations of color need additional resources.
We know that access to care for a lot of people is fragmented, intermittent, limited, spotty and sporadic. People use the Emergency Rooms for their primary health care. So, when we tell people to stay home they couldn’t get care for their conditions.
We tell people about drive-thru testing. Well, people don’t have cars. People use public transportation.
We talk about social distancing. Social distancing for a lot of people is a privilege. Most people can’t work from home. They’re part of the service industry. They take public transportation to work.
We know that access to services in certain neighborhoods is limited. So, people have to travel.
For good or bad, the coronavirus has laid bare all of the inequities that exist in our most vulnerable communities due to decades of bad public policy decisions by our political leaders, both locally and nationally.
Infectious disease experts warn that once we bend the pandemic curve in America there could be a second or third wave. Consequently, they’re calling for testing, tracing and supported isolation.
This presents an opportunity for us to prepare. As superior as we would like to think of ourselves, COVID-19 has exposed our vulnerabilities as a nation. Once a manufacturing giant, we’ve been reduced to depending on China for the everyday equipment needed to protect us from this deadly virus. Earlier this month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker spent $1.7 million for two flights to China for personal protection equipment. Illinois spent another $17 million to buy questionable KN95 masks. Other states are making similar purchases. In fact, many governors find themselves competing against one another for the PPEs needed by our essential workers who are on the front lines fighting this pandemic so we can stay home.
It’s reported the governor of Maryland spent $9 million for 500,000 COVID-19 tests from South Korea. According to The Washington Post, that’s the equivalent of one test for every 12 Marylanders — not enough to meet the state’s goal of testing 10,000 a day.
On “ABC This Week,” Danielle Allen, director of the Harvard University Edmond J. Safra Center For Ethics said to avoid a second wave the U.S. needs to get to 5 million tests a day by June.
“It’s a question of coordinating the supply chain, maximizing existing capacity, we can get to 2 million a day with the existing infrastructure and using breakthrough innovations,” said Allen. “I think the most important question is, how much testing, tracing and supported isolation do we need to avoid having to use repeated applications of stay at home order when a second or third wave hits.”
With an unemployment rate in double digits among Chicago’s Black residents before the pandemic and so many other people out of work as a result of the stay at home order, this is the perfect time to start planning for how we rebuild the nation’s stockpile of gloves, gowns, masks, shields, N95 respirators, ventilators, swabs and shoe covers.
The federal government has the power to offer guaranteed loans to companies that want to get into the N95 business. It also can guarantee to buy large quantities of masks at prices above the traditional rate. As more and more Americans are being asked to wear masks to protect themselves and the legions of grocery workers, restaurant cooks, delivery people, truckers, bus drivers, nursing home workers and others who are keeping the country running, the need is far exceeding the supply.
The University of Chicago Medicine tested the helmet ventilators that are being used in Italy in 2016. According to their website, these helmets which cover the nose and mouth helps critically ill patients breathe better and can prevent them from needing intubation with a ventilator machine. It was found patients with helmet ventilation also spent less time in the intensive care unit and had a better survival rate. Currently, a Texas man is making these helmet ventilators in his garage.
If ventilators, masks and shields can be created in garages and with 3-D printers, they can be made on the city’s South and West sides. For example, use the closed retail spaces where a Bank of America branch, a Save A Lot and a CVS drugstore closed during the first three months of this year in Auburn Gresham or any of the other thousands of vacant buildings and lots in Black neighborhoods. Auburn Gresham is one of the communities with the highest number of COVID-19 deaths.
As our former mayor would say, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” In this case, let this be an opportunity to turn a crisis into a mandate for good. In addition to the federal government, ask the state’s millionaires and billionaires to contribute to putting residents in communities with the most need to work. Partner with our colleges, universities, unions and manufacturers. If we want to address the state’s inequities this would be a great first step. The pandemic is showing us the way, now all we need is the will. Let’s show we’re really all in this together.