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The Many Reasons Black Americans Are Dying At Higher Rates From COVID-19

Decades of structural inequality have made the coronavirus pandemic even deadlier for minority communities.

Detroit bus driver Eric Colts stands outside a funeral home on April 9 after arrangements were made for the burial of Jason Hargove, a Detroit bus driver who passed away from COVID-19. He was Eric's brother-in-law. (Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has started publishing racial and ethnic data from COVID-19 cases on its website, after calls from Congress to provide a more comprehensive picture of how minority communities are affected disproportionately by the outbreak.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading public health official on the coronavirus, has drawn attention to the higher rates of infection and deaths among Black Americans at recent White House press briefings, calling it “unacceptable.”

“I couldn't help sitting there reflecting on how sometimes when you're in the middle of a crisis, like we are now with the coronavirus, it really does have, ultimately, shine a very bright light on some of the real weaknesses and foibles in our society," Fauci said in an April 7 briefing.

In Michigan, the state with the third highest death toll in the country behind New York and New Jersey, data has already shown that over 40% of people who have died from COVID-19 are Black. But Black people only make up 14% of the state’s population.

The vast majority of those deaths have been in the Detroit metro area, which is about 82% Black. That could explain some of the disparity — but not nearly all of it. In an interview with NowThis, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said the disparities are “glaring” and “very, very alarming.” 

“Many people out there who are being impacted don’t have the ability to telecommute to work,” Nessel said. “They might be our food service workers or work in public transportation, or law enforcement or other areas where they would be subject to contracting the virus much more than if they served in some other type of employment.” Jason Hargrove, a 50-year-old bus driver in Detroit, went viral for a Facebook Live video he posted on March 21 in which he talked about the risks of being a transit worker, ferrying passengers who weren’t taking proper public health precautions. Talking about a passenger without a mask who coughed repeatedly, he said, “We out here as public workers trying to do our job, trying to make an honest living, trying to care for our families, but for you to get on the bus and stand and cough several times without covering your mouth — and you know that we are in the middle of a pandemic — that lets me know that some folks don’t care.” Hargrove died from COVID-19 eleven days later. His wife has urged people to stay home and take this seriously, so that his death "not be in vain."

AG Nessel also pointed out that existing inequality and health issues in minority communities are exacerbating the COVID-19 problem. Speaking of Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s district, which she described as having “the highest rates of asthma and respiratory disease of virtually any area in all of the United States,” she said “that’s due to a number of different types of heavy industries that are in this area, which is also very densely populated.”

“So what happens when you don’t have the proper types of environmental regulations that are enforced, and people already have these pre-existing conditions that have to do with respiratory failure? They are going to be the first ones who die from a respiratory-oriented disease like COVID-19,” Nessel said. “We’re seeing it in droves, impacting communities of color, African Americans, the Latinx community, Middle Eastern communities...I think that’s something that we’re really going to have to take a hard look at when all of this is over.”

Nessel’s observations dovetail with what Dr. Fauci has said about why Black Americans might be experiencing higher death rates: the prevalence of “underlying medical conditions — the diabetes, the hypertension, the obesity, the asthma” lead to more hospitalizations. Black Americans have those pre-existing conditions because of decades of inequality in economic, environmental, educational, and health care policy.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has been tweeting often about racial disparities, pointing out similar context about the hardest-hit neighborhoods in New York. “Historically Black communities...have been impacted by racist policies like redlining for generations,” she wrote in early April. “This pandemic is happening in CONTEXT. And a lot of folks who deny racism have no idea what it really is.”

When asked what Michigan could do to address the disparities right now, AG Nessel told NowThis, “We’re doing everything in our power to ensure that there is more testing in the areas that need it most. To make sure that we have enough PPE.” She and other officials are seeking FDA approval for “new [equipment] sterilization techniques” that would allow tens of thousands of pieces of PPE to be sterilized in 24 hours, making it more readily available to use.

“But a lot of the issues are systemic and they're not going to be cured overnight,” she added. “And we're going to have to stop sweeping these problems under the rug.” Nessel encouraged voters to consider the impacts of the virus on their communities at the polls in November. “Are you going to put up with this? Are you going to put up with the disparity in terms of the way that the virus has impacted people? If you think that’s intolerable, if you think it is not fair...you need to get out and you need to vote in November. You need to find the candidate that will best represent you when your community is under fire and has been besieged, the way we’ve seen it.”

Watch the full interview below:

Earlier this week, Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Karen Bass (D-CA), Robin Kelly (D-IL) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced the Equitable Data Collection and Disclosure on COVID-19 Act, which would “require the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services to collect and release racial and other demographic data on COVID-19.” They welcome the new data being published by the CDC as a "huge step forward."

“The stark racial disparities in COVID-19 cases and deaths makes clear the need for nationwide, race-specific data collection,” said Rep. Pressley in a statement. “I’m encouraged that the CDC has finally heeded our call to begin publicly releasing this data, but there is still much more to be done. It’s crucial that the CDC begins collecting and releasing demographic data on all COVID patients, so that we can fully and effectively respond to this crisis, and that we use this data to address and disrupt the inequities that created these deep disparities to begin with.”