“We’re all in this together” is a phrase that has been used by many to describe the individual lived experience of coronavirus. On the surface, as many people around the world (not all) shelter in place and social distance, there does seem to be a unifying aspect as we are all asked to do our part to flatten the curve.
Headlines starting April 7, 2020 showed that this “equal opportunity” virus was disproportionately impacting black communities. Delayed responses based on systemic racial inequalities are partially to blame along with decades of discrimination making some people more physically and financially vulnerable during this pandemic. Meanwhile, the media has tended to whitewash many of the racial aspects surrounding COVID-19 in the United States.
Fortunately, black leaders have quickly mobilized community voices. Time will tell if politicians and the media will address both the short-term needs of the black community and the long-term inequalities that continue to put people of color at greater risk to medical ailments.
Race and Coronavirus
Initial infection and fatality statistics were reported by geographic areas only: by country and in the USA also by state. Some cities and counties began to also report cases and deaths, and in some cases these reports have included zip codes.
Some of these earlier reports in the United States (such as in San Francisco) omitted zip code and purposefully avoided reporting on race to protect the Asian American community because some people — including the president of the United States — was referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus,” which has led to discrimination, harassment, and hate crimes against people of Asian descent.
It took more than five weeks after the first reported COVID-19 death in the USA (February 29, 2020) for media headlines to reveal and discuss that this virus has been adversely affecting black Americans and other minorities at a disproportionate rate in the United States:
- The Washington Post on April 7: “The coronavirus is infecting and killing black Americans at an alarmingly high rate”
- CNN on April 7: “Why black Americans are at higher risk for coronavirus”
- USA Today on April 7: “Black people dying from coronavirus at much higher rates in cities across the USA”
- The New York Times on April 8: “Virus Is Twice as Deadly for Black and Latino People Than Whites in N.Y.C.”
Again, it took more than five weeks of fatalities for researchers, politicians, and the media to identify and make public this deadly trend.
We have learned that every day of inaction that passes during this pandemic results in increased infections and increased deaths at an exponential rate. When it comes to COVID-19 deaths, demographics of age have been part of reports from day one. This led to early interventions to protect the vulnerable population of the elderly.
The media has highlighted stories of family members going to the windows of nursing homes to visit loved one or standing in the front yard at a comfortable distance to sing happy birthday to their elderly relatives. Media outlets have found both timely and respectful ways to educate the American public about ways to protect this first population identified as vulnerable.
Race has not been treated the same as age.
Racial demographics on infections, hospitalizations, and fatalities — when it comes to COVID-19 — were withheld or omitted in reports and in the media for weeks. This stark omission prevented vital interventions to protect the vulnerable population of people of color in the United States.
Even the city of St. Louis (as of April 12) only provides public data on COVID-19 by age and gender — not by race. (See below to understand why this is important.)
We must ask the question: why is it that every American was aware that grandma and grandpa were at higher risk yet it took longer than a month to alert the public to the specific vulnerabilities in black communities?
In my home city of St. Louis, the first COVID-19 death was announced on March 22. Jazmond Dixon was a black woman in her 30s and her case was not travel related. Eleven more deaths were reported in St. Louis city through April 8 and 100% of those deaths have been members of the black community.
Now revisit the charts from the COVID-19 Cases by Demographic Groups page from the city of St. Louis, which only include age and sex. No demographics on race are included.
The disproportionate fatality rate for black Americans has been reported for Louisiana (70% of deaths vs. 32% of the population), Milwaukee County (70% of deaths vs. 26% of the population), and Chicago (72% of deaths vs. 30% of the population).
Reporting these kinds of statistics will not prevent others from arguing that this is not a trend, because in their particular location statistics may show otherwise (or, perhaps not). The author of this tweet claiming that “coronavirus prefers [the] non-hispanic white population over the black population,” though, should note that “Alabama follows [the] national trend of disproportionate rate of coronavirus deaths for African Americans.”
Sadly, many Americans may seek to invalidate publicly reported and analyzed data. This would be like finding statistics that show one zip code where more people under the age of 40 have died; therefore, it is “fake news” that the elderly are a more vulnerable population. No one appears to invalidate the genuine risk to the elderly during the coronavirus pandemic. To invalidate or to ignore the statistical reality facing the black community during this pandemic can only be motivated by racism.
We need to use these early data trends to mandate better reporting on COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and fatalities. Race and ethnicity need to be part of these statistics to allow for better data-based decisions. Responses are needed, and quickly.
Responses to Coronavirus
Based on media reports, most responses and interventions have been based on geography (larger cities, such as San Francisco and New York, and entire states, such as Illinois and Louisiana) and the greatest rationale given has been to protect the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions (in addition to not overtaxing the medical system). This political response plan and these public service announcements have failed to address the particular effects of systemic racial disparities.
Delays in testing have exacerbated this issue, especially when we consider who has access to testing and who does not.
In the earlier weeks of this pandemic, it was either those presenting clear symptoms or those with true financial clout (politicians, professional sports players, and movie stars) who could even get tested. Most of the initial testing focused on international travelers and those who had been in contact with these high-risk travelers.
The media turned to discussions of mass testing using South Korea as the model country for early preventative measures. As such, drive-thru testing became what the people wanted.
In the St. Louis area we started with drive-thru testing on March 19 in Chesterfield, MO, which is a municipality that is 83% white and 11% Asian.
Two weeks later North St. Louis (which is 94% black) received its first testing center, which also included walk-up service.
A 2006 UC Berkeley report examined car ownership and race in response to racial disparities for Hurricane Katrina and the ability of individual citizens and their families to have the opportunity to evacuate. They found that:
African Americans have the lowest car ownership of all racial and ethnic groups in the country, the researchers say, with 19 percent living in homes in which no one owns a car. That compares to 4.6 percent of whites in homes with no car, 13.7 percent of Latinos, and 9.6 percent of the remaining groups combined.
If our early response to testing for COVID-19 has been drive-thru testing and if earlier access focused on predominately white communities (as was the case in St. Louis) then the black community is already put at a disadvantage.
In the St. Louis area, notice how the first testing site in a predominately black neighborhood that also included walk-up service lagged 14 days behind that of a drive-thru only option in a predominately white neighborhood. This North St. Louis testing option also lagged 10 days behind the start of the stay-at-home mandate in the St. Louis area, a mandate meant to raise the alarm for everyone.
Remember, 100% of the first twelve COVID-19 fatalities in St. Louis city were African Americans where the black community represents 46% of the population.
These disparities will continue as President Trump has announced that federal support for coronavirus testing will end. This will put decisions back on states and local municipalities with no federal guidance.
More recent pushes have been to rely on the private health care sector to carry out more of the testing, which will further disenfranchise black Americans who have less access to private healthcare when compared to white Americans.
Trump’s announcement came during the same week that it became clear that black and brown communities were being affected disproportionately by COVID-19. This is even more alarming as the United States has taken the lead globally in confirmed COVID-19 cases (and remember that these numbers under-report the true number of cases due to lack of testing) and the USA now leads the world in COVID-19 fatalities.
If cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are rising (and at this point have not yet reached their peek), why would the U.S. government not increase both support and oversight of testing?
Denying black and brown communities equitable access to COVID-19 testing and equitable opportunities to slow or prevent the spread of the virus in their communities is simply a violation of civil rights.
Delayed and unequal access to testing is only one major issue facing black Americans today. Many of the methods to prevent exposure and to flatten the curve are not equally accessible to all communities.
The media and social media have promoted working from home and taking all of your meetings via Zoom as the “norm” for many. But it is primarily those who have stable, contracted, and protected “office-style” employment (often with benefits) that have this safer opportunity. Additionally, you must have access to an individual device (not sharing one with other family members also fulfilling their work or study obligations) and unlimited internet access in order to stay connected.
The Free Press found that a Racial Digital Divide persists with fewer black and hispanic families compared to white families having access to broadband internet at home at all income brackets. The Washington Post has reported on the racial and socioeconomic disparities on the new “work-from-home” culture that works for some and is not an option for others:
As new communities go into lockdown in hopes of slowing the spread of the virus, the people most at risk for getting sick, because they must venture out, are largely people of color, those with only a high school education and those whose incomes are likely to suffer during the ongoing crisis.
When more people of color have fewer opportunities to work from home, avoid public transportation, and practice social distancing, then more people of color will continue to be represented in these statistics.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) found that black and hispanic workers are employed disproportionately more in “frontline industries,” many of which are now considered “essential jobs” during this pandemic and offer no work-from-home options. The jobs include grocery store clerks, public transit workers, trucking professionals, warehouse staff, postal service workers, building cleaning crew members, healthcare workers, and childcare workers.
According the CEPR report, black workers are overrepresented in every single one of these categories.
Put bluntly, as more people of color are expected to continue to be the front line of the service industry they are also being put in the position of being the front line of infections and fatalities. Meanwhile, the privileged classes are more likely to have the opportunity and the resources to wait this out until there is a vaccine.
Is this equitable? Is this ethical? Is this American?
Media and Coronavirus
The traditional American way, though, has been to blame people of color for their personal choices and their personal failings. Already Surgeon General Jerome Adams (an African American) has come under criticism for calling on members of the black and hispanic community to “step it up” and to stop using alcohol, drugs, and tobacco.
PBS news hero and White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor challenged Adams on his selective advice and choice of words (“do it for Big Mamma and Pop-Pop”), which Adams tried to defend during the news briefing.
Has anyone in the media told the elderly to “step it up” and stop drinking or smoking? Or has the focus been on social distancing, monitoring symptoms, and advocating for more testing?
The elderly and the black community have both been identified as vulnerable populations yet the discourse used in the media and — alarmingly — by the U.S. Surgeon General have differed both in tone and content.
Numerous black leaders have come to the forefront to address both community-based preventative measures and systemic inequalities that have put black people at higher risk of infection and fatality.
On April 9, Sean “Diddy” Combs hosted a two-hour town hall “The State of Black America and the Coronavirus” on Revolt.tv (also available on YouTube). Assisted by Van Jones of CNN’s The Van Jones Show, they brought together CNN political commentator Angela Rye, past president of the American Public Health Association Dr. Camara Jones, Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, New York Times columnist Charles Blow, rapper Big Sean, rapper Fat Joe, rapper Killer Mike, and others.
Doctors, politicians, journalist, rappers, and other representatives of the black community took leadership, response, media, and action into their own hands.
This important panel of voices found ways to combine urgent messages for the black community to protect themselves while also addressing the ongoing racial disparities that will sadly continue unless these voices are heard and embraced by politicians, the media, and every American.
Issues such as less access to nutritious foods in black neighborhoods, less access to quality health care, black communities not being able to trust the medical community, disproportionate incarceration of black people, and a long history of racial and socioeconomic disparities are just some the issues that have put black people at higher risk to COVID-19 during this pandemic.
It is vitally important that politicians, the media, and local leaders work directly with members and leaders of the black community to hear concerns that are unique to being black in today’s American communities. It will also be important to prioritize addressing historical inequalities that have led to black people being disproportionately represented in COVID-19 fatalities.
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed weaknesses in the American system. As a country we were not as well prepared to handle a pandemic (Reuters has an article on Trumps’s role in our initial lack of preparation and The New York Times has reported on Trump’s delayed response). Former Vox reporter and now independent journalist Carlos Maza has examined how coronavirus reveals that neoliberalism (our free market economy) does not function during a pandemic such as we have in 2020.
Other media reports have focused on the failings of our current health care system, the need for paid sick leave, unemployment benefits, and many other systemic issues that have come to the surface during the coronavirus pandemic.
Will the media take up the systemic inequalities that will continue to put more black Americans and people of color at greater risk not only for COVID-19 but also for future “equal opportunity” disasters and epidemics that reveal inequalities in our country?
Initially, the media has been more focused on the statistics than on the deep-seated causes of those statistics. Hopefully that will change. Black leaders are working hard to ensure that histories and systems of racial disparities become part of our media discussions, debates, and education not only today relating to the coronavirus pandemic but also tomorrow and until these inequities are genuinely addressed.
We have spent weeks saying that we are doing all of this for the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions putting them at greater risk. Are we willing to make this same commitment to black communities and other communities that find themselves harder hit?
If the answer is not a resounding “yes,” then we need to really re-examine what it means to be American and to provide each person with an equal opportunity to be healthy, safe, and financially stable.
When our politicians, local leaders, the media, and everyone around us works together to meet the immediate needs of those affected by COVID-19 and to address the systemic disparities creating vulnerabilities, then — and only then — can we truly say “we’re all in this together.”
DJ Kaiser, PhD is the Associate Dean for the School of Education and Director of Teaching English as a Second Language at Webster University in St. Louis. With more than two decades of experience in the field of English language teaching, he has delivered presentations, workshops, and seminars on language instruction, language planning and policy, technology for education, and program development throughout the United States and in Mexico, Canada, China, Thailand, Vietnam, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Spain, Greece, Holland, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Ecuador. Twitter: @djkaiser_phd.