Posted on March 30, 2020

For Vulnerable Black Communities, the Pandemic is a “Crisis on Top of a Crisis”

Khushbu Shah, Vox, March 27, 2020

A full day before President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus outbreak a national emergency, the mayor of Flint, Michigan, declared a state of emergency. Mayor Sheldon Neeley could see what was coming. The community has been living in crisis since the city started taking water from the Flint River in 2014, flowing it through corrosive pipes and into homes for drinking even though it was tainted and lead-ridden.

With the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the country, the newly elected mayor knew it would only be a matter of time before Flint was dealing with an added health crisis. He would be proactive rather than reactive, he decided, for the majority African American community.

“It’s just such a crisis on top of a crisis with a side of crisis,” he told Vox by phone. “So we’re engaging on every level.”

A week before declaring a state of emergency on March 12, the mayor put forth a new 14-day quarantine policy for those returning from travel. The day after the declaration, he limited public gatherings to 30 people. Four days later, he shut down city hall. Before the week was over, he issued a stay-at-home-order. As of March 27, more than 90 people have tested positive in Genesee County where Flint is, according to the state’s count, and a woman in a homeless shelter in the city has tested positive for the virus.

The mayor’s swift actions were necessary in a community as vulnerable as Flint’s: Forty percent of its 95,000 residents live below the poverty line, with nearly two-thirds of its children living in poverty, deepening the void between residents and access to regular health care, food, and clean drinking water. So while coronavirus fears sweep the nation, unlike the Americans who have the time and resources to stockpile toilet paper, Clorox wipes, and pasta, residents of Flint are already lagging.

“Your health care depends on who you are,” a 2014 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report begins, citing disparities in coverage based on race and ethnicity, while a 2017 Health and Human Services finding ends with: “The death rate for African Americans is generally higher than whites for heart diseases, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza and pneumonia, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and homicide.” African Americans are also 4 percent more likely than their white counterparts to be uninsured and 7 percent more likely to fall into a coverage gap, a 2019 Kaiser Health News report found.

Citing these concerns, a group of black doctors told BuzzFeed’s Nidhi Prakash earlier this week they were calling on both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to reveal if black communities across America were at a disadvantage in receiving coronavirus tests. Neither the CDC nor the Johns Hopkins data — which consists of CDC, WHO, and other resources — break down positive coronavirus cases by race or ethnicity.

While there may not be much national data regarding race, the coronavirus numbers coming out of Detroit, one of the blackest and poorest cities in the nation, proves how much the virus impacts low-income communities of color. Just two weeks ago, there was not a single coronavirus case reported in the city, and now there are more than 850 cases and 15 related deaths, according to the state government’s numbers. With a large number of residents not only living in poverty but also with acute health issues like diabetes, Detroit’s numbers are accelerating, Bridge Magazine reported — well beyond the state level in a state with one of the worst public health systems in the country.


Reverend William Barber II, a board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, says the magnitude of the pandemic only exacerbates the fissures of equality in society. {snip}

“Prior to this virus, 140 million people were poor and low-income. Well, that’s 43 percent of your country. In the midst of this virus, the very thing that we are asking people to do we are often saying to them from a position of wealth and not understanding that because we didn’t address poverty,” Reverend Barber said. While social distancing works for those who have the privilege of working from home and ordering groceries, for some, social distancing for even one day can affect if they eat for a whole week or a whole month, he explained.

Making physicians and health centers available to these communities is a solution, said Dr. Patrice Harris, the American Medical Association’s first African American president. But at the same time, it should not be the responsibility of any one clinic or organization to reach these under-resourced communities, she said. “This needs to be an item of discussion and thoughts about how to make sure that there’s access to qualified health centers.”