By MICHELLE MUELLER
©The Recorder April 2, 2020
Albion resident Maurice Barry has already lost a first cousin to COVID-19.
“I didn’t even know she had it until another cousin called to tell me she had died,” he explained in a phone interview. Barry grew up in Detroit and has many relatives who reside there. “She was only 43. Her family doesn’t know what kind of funeral arrangements they’ll be able to make.”
Barry, 55, went on to explain that another female cousin had been home alone suffering with the coronavirus for a week before a relative took her to another home to quarantine.
“People need to get a grip – this [pandemic] is real. It’s changing the fabric of our lives,” said Barry. “Me, I’m staying in the house, sewing face masks. People need to stay home.
“You have to take it personally at this point of the game – it could mean your life,” said Barry. “My brother told me he’s not opening the door to anybody.”
Barry is trying his best to get the word out to those in Albion’s African American community who have not yet “gotten the message” to stay home and shelter in place, and practice social distancing. “When I heard about groups of black people still gathering in places like the parking lots at Lincolnshire, I put a message out on Facebook, because some of those younger people do listen to me,” he said.
At least 40 percent of those killed by the novel coronavirus in Michigan so far are black, a percentage that far exceeds the proportion of African-Americans in the Detroit region and state [14 percent]
Last week, the Detroit News reported, “At least 40 percent of those killed by the novel coronavirus in Michigan so far are black, a percentage that far exceeds the proportion of African-Americans in the Detroit region and state [14 percent].”
The city of Detroit alone – which is 79 percent African American while only 7 percent of Michigan’s population – has 26 percent of the state’s infections and 25 percent of its deaths. Many in Albion’s black community have family and friends living in the Detroit area, and like Barry, some have already lost loved ones.
More data on African American deaths from COVID-19 has been published by the media during the past week.
Pro Publica, a public interest journalism newsroom, reported that in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, as of Friday morning, 81 percent of the deaths were black people. African Americans make up only 27 percent of that county.
In Chicago, television station WBEZ reported Sunday that in surrounding Cook County 70 percent of Covid-19 deaths are black – while black residents make up only 23 percent of the population in the county, they account for 58 percent of the Covid-19 deaths.
Health experts agree that African Americans are not any more likely to be infected by the coronavirus because it gets anybody it can, regardless of gender or race/ethnicity.
“In theory, that is true,” wrote Charles M. Blow, in a recent opinion column for the New York Times. “But, in practice, in the real world, this virus behaves like others, screeching like a heat-seeking missile toward the most vulnerable in society. And this happens not because it prefers them, but because they are more exposed, more fragile and more ill…in America, that vulnerability is highly intersected with race and poverty.”
Unfortunately, neither the Center for Disease Control (CDC) or any other federal agency has been releasing any racial demographic data about testing, infection rate, or outcomes – only data based on sex and age – despite a letter last week demanding such data by members of Congress including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Robin Kelly.
“A history of discrimination and marginalization has also left some people of color distrustful of the medical system, making them less likely to seek out timely care. These factors may all combine to accelerate the effects of the outbreak in the most vulnerable communities…”
The letter addressed the fact that socioeconomic factors may exacerbate racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes: Low-income people are more likely to have many of the chronic health conditions that experts have identified as risk factors for complications from COVID-19; people of color are more likely to fall below the poverty line, work in low-wage jobs, and have fewer financial resources to draw upon in times of emergency; unemployment, food insecurity and unstable or substandard housing conditions may further perpetuate disparities in health outcomes for people infected by the coronavirus, especially in low-income communities of color.
“A history of discrimination and marginalization has also left some people of color distrustful of the medical system, making them less likely to seek out timely care. These factors may all combine to accelerate the effects of the outbreak in the most vulnerable communities,” the letter warned.
“Any attempt to contain COVID-19 in the United States will have to address its potential spread in low-income communities of color, first and foremost to protect the lives of people in those communities, but also to slow the spread of the virus in the country as a whole,” wrote the lawmakers. “As the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States continues to grow exponentially, we urge you not to delay collecting this vital information, and to take any additional necessary steps to ensure that all Americans have the access they need to COVID-19 testing and treatment.”
Most states and territories haven’t released racial or ethnic data, either. The 13 that have are Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C.. On Monday, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law joined with medical professionals to call for the immediate release of all racial and ethnic data on coronavirus infections, testing and deaths.
What data has been obtained brings home the message that the African American community is indeed being hard hit.
“Now that we’re getting data, it’s like ‘Oh my gosh,’” remarked Kyra Wallace, president/CEO of the Southwestern Michigan Urban League based in Battle Creek, in a Tuesday interview with The Recorder. “The trends in Calhoun County are the same as they are for the state: African Americans make up 40 percent of the deaths, and as far as unemployment because of the shut-down, they make up a larger portion because they work in the industries being hardest hit.”
That has also been the case in Washtenaw County. Last Thursday for instance, their health department (encompassing the Ann Arbor area) released data breaking down their coronavirus cases by ZIP code and race, showing that although African-Americans constitute only 12 percent of that county’s population, 48 percent of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients who live in Washtenaw are black.
“We know viruses do not discriminate based on location, race, ethnicity, or national origin,” said the county’s health officer Jimena Loveluck. “However, viruses like COVID-19 can highlight health disparities that are deeply rooted in our society.”
So, why are communities of color – black and brown – so vulnerable to dying from the novel coronavirus?
So, why are communities of color – black and brown – so vulnerable to dying from the novel coronavirus?
Contagious disease experts report that approximately 80 percent of COVID-19 infections are mild, with symptoms like sniffles, a cold or a manageable case of the flu. About 20 percent will need to be hospitalized, and it has been predicted that between 200,000 and 1.7 million Americans will likely die, with the risk of death lower among those younger than age 60.
One factor worsening the survival prospects for people of color is that they have disproportionately higher rates of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and hypertension.
On March 15, the national NAACP hosted an Emergency Tele Town Hall about COVID-19 and its potential impact on communities of color. As a civil rights organization and stewards of human rights, the NAACP is working to ensure that the policies and practices that are born out of this pandemic justly address the health, economic and social needs of all people. The NAACP also released a resource guide entitled “Ten equity implications of the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak in the United States,” available at https://www.naacp.org/coronavirus/.
“The truth is, there are so many within this nation that are disenfranchised from receiving adequate and affordable care due to socio-economic circumstances,” said Derrick Johnson, president and CEO, NAACP. “This virus will have dire consequences on so many, but specifically African Americans, which suffer from higher rates of chronic illness.”
Besides the greater incidence of underlying health conditions in America’s black population, there are other factors that put them at more risk during the pandemic – including what type of work they did before the shut-down.
When Michigan’s mandated non-essential business shut-down occurred, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics only about 29 percent of the workforce was able to work from home. Ninety percent of higher-wage workers received paid sick leave compared to the lower-income workers; and just 31 percent of workers with salaries in the bottom 10 percent were allowed paid sick leave. Among the working poor, African American workers will witness an even greater impact because so many are employed in service industries, including healthcare or as cashiers, and in other forward-facing jobs that expose them to the public’s germs.
Another factor impacting the black community is poverty. In Albion, for instance, the median household income for a family of color is only $23,347. In addition, somewhere between 9.4 percent and 13.1 percent of its African Americans citizens age 65 and older are living below the poverty level – that is almost double the numbers for both the state of Michigan and the entire U.S.
“For the last month or more it has been a very difficult time in our community, throughout the state and the world. Covid-19 has changed our lives. Our national officers have put an important call out to all local branches to share with its membership and community the importance of sheltering-in-place. The Albion Branch is reaching out to its membership and the community to emphasize that COVID-19 is a serious and dangerous virus. We must heed the information put before us and shelter in place.”
Robert Dunklin, president of the Albion Branch NAACP
For low-income African Americans, there is no margin of error – they have limited or no wealth or savings, limited or no health insurance, limited or no paid sick leave, and oftentimes limited material resources, even in extended families. It is suggested that they cut back hard on spending, purchasing necessities only, and strategize with their Albion family, church and community members about how to look out for each other. Families of color tend to be larger, and more than one generation may live under one roof, exposing vulnerable adults to children and teens.
Young people of color are not necessarily home free, as many experts suggest, compared to other young folk, because they also experience racial health disparities which weaken them.
“In general, there’s a feeling that the younger and healthier are less likely to die of COVID-19. But those who are younger in the majority community may have a better diet, exercise more, and be more easily able to socially isolate themselves,” says Dr. Oliver T. Brooks, MD, president of the National Medical Association. “All of the things that go with youth—those factors are not of the same intensity within communities of color.”
So, what should people in communities of color be doing right now to keep themselves, their family, and their friends safe from the coronavirus?
If they are already in not-so-great health, they should immediately stop smoking, take medications and use their inhalers, physically distance themselves from others (i.e. stay home, or for essential trips to the grocery store or pharmacy, keep six feet away from others), and strengthen their immune systems.
Because stress undermines the immune system and raises blood pressure, and high blood pressure increases the risk of negative outcomes from COVID-19, experts suggest taking your medications, getting plenty of sleep, and engaging in self-care and self-soothing.
Since Albion’s churches have closed amid the crisis, efforts to spread factual information about the COVID-19 crisis among its African American population has been blunted. Local ministers are doing their best to reach out, some even conducting virtual worship opportunities.
Community leader Harry Bonner Sr. suggests that members of Albion’s black community “Tightly limit who interacts with your elders, but don’t let them become socially isolated.” Bonner is providing leadership to the Albion Coronavirus Response Team, who along with other tasks, are ensuring that local senior citizens and others with health risks are having their needs assessed and being provided with food needs.
Since the first day of Gov. Whitmer’s mandated shut-down of all schools, Marshall Public Schools district leaders have steadily transported school lunches and snacks to pick-up points for the area’s children, and have been working to ensure that students and teachers have the internet services and computers to participate in online schooling.
Robert Dunklin, president of the Albion Branch NAACP has asked that this message be shared with our readers:
“For the last month or more it has been a very difficult time in our community, throughout the state and the world. Covid-19 has changed our lives. Our national officers have put an important call out to all local branches to share with its membership and community the importance of sheltering-in-place. The Albion Branch is reaching out to its membership and the community to emphasize that COVID-19 is a serious and dangerous virus. We must heed the information put before us and shelter in place.” It is not a time for second guessing.
“For over 111 years, the NAACP has been fighting to ensure that our elected officials put the needs of the people first. This is not happening. The COVID-19 outbreak is among us and has equity implications. We have endured many equity and justice challenges. This is a very vulnerable time and we must be vigilant. Don’t take chances. It is important to protect yourself, your family and others. We must remember that God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and love and of a sound mind (2nd Timothy 1:7). Please follow the mandate given to us: shelter in place!”
We have endured many equity and justice challenges. This is a very vulnerable time and we must be vigilant. Don’t take chances. It is important to protect yourself, your family and others. We must remember that God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and love and of a sound mind (2nd Timothy 1:7). Please follow the mandate given to us: shelter in place!”
Sheltering-in-place is indeed the centerpiece of the public health response to COVID-19 called social distancing. The goal of social distancing is to prevent contagious people from coming into close contact with healthy people in order to slow down the spread of contagious diseases, which in turn helps prevent a spike in cases that overwhelms the health care system. To lessen the chances of catching the COVID-19 virus, experts recommend that people stay at least six feet away from each other.
Michelle is the author of the book Mr. Bonner: The Story of a Mentoring Journey, which was released in 2019. She has written for The Recorder, the Albion College Io Triumphe magazine, and she is an enthusiastic scrapbooker in her spare time. See more articles by Michelle Mueller here: www.albionmich.net/writer-mueller/
This story is reprinted with permission from The Recorder.
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