Misinformation, racial profiling, and a general—and warranted—distrust of the medical establishment put Black communities at disproportionate risk of Coronavirus infection, misdiagnosis, and death.
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Around the middle of March, I paced back and forth down my driveway for two hours talking to my hometown Mississippi pastor explaining why they could not have church services on Sunday. I was incensed with just how much wasn’t shared in the black community about the dangers of COVID-19 and how it spreads. I heard myself saying things like, “Yes, this is a serious virus.” “No, I don’t think this will be over by Easter.” “Yes, you should plan to cancel all conferences and travel at least until May.” ”Yes, I still believe and I have faith, but even during Passover, God commanded that his people stay in the house.”
The confusion, lack of information, and unstable leadership amid a national health crisis have been mind-blowing. Communities of color, particularly in urban and impoverished places, are faced with addressing the Coronavirus in addition to the already staggering issues of environmental injustice, economic disparities, and health problems that have burdened us for generations.
We’re supposed to shelter in place, but the places we live are overwhelmed with air pollution, making our lands and water toxic. We’re supposed to keep our kids home and provide education but we are the essential workers that must report to duty, and live with failing infrastructure that can’t sustain broadband. We’re supposed to wear gloves and masks, but we suffer from racial profiling—even during a global pandemic—and are asked to leave the premises when doing the very things that are proposed to save lives. Has COVID-19 made the entire world forget about Trayvon Martin and the stigma of racial profiling? As one mother said to me bluntly, “You want me to ask my Black son to don a mask and walk into the bank? No, ma’am, we’ll just take our chances with Corona, we might survive that.” Her words couldn’t have a truer ring as we’ve all been horrified by the recent and all-too-familiar story of Ahmad Aubrey, the young Black man who was fatally shot while jogging in a Brunswick, Georgia community by two white men. My own stepson is a Black man who now lives in the Brunswick community. We spent many mornings running through our local neighborhoods in Mississippi. I can’t begin to think of what may happen if he went for a jog—wearing a mask.
As I paced my driveway I came to a stunning conclusion: We are not just fighting for our lives in this pandemic. We are COVIDing while Black.
In January when the Coronavirus first began to make news in the U.S., rumors about the lack of infection to African-Americans spread throughout the Black community. We are the product of enslaved Africans who survived smallpox, cholera, and dysentery of the transatlantic slave trade. Our ancestors developed thier own cures for typhoid fever, pneumonia, and yellow fever during slavery, and methods of healing ailments have been passed down from generation to generation. The medical experimentations on Black bodies ranging from Henrietta Lacks to the Tuskegee Airmen have generated distrust among African-Americans and an unwillingness to believe that healthcare professionals really want to “heal” us. Surely, a virus that was listed on the back of the Lysol can overcome by a little faith, ginger ale, hot tea, and Tussin, right?
All of a sudden the confidence and comfort of our community blinded us from the brute reality that a pandemic of any proportion would have devastating and deadly effects on our friends, family, and neighbors. Daily I heard Black folks say things like, “Black folks can’t get that stuff!” “Have you seen any cases in Africa? No? My point exactly.” “Well, the news said it won’t be that bad.” “We walk by faith and not by sight. God’s got us.”
For black communities, our familiarity with one another gives us a sense of immunity and protection from harm. It’s our superpower; our real-life Wakanda in America. It also emboldens the belief that if I “know” this person, it’s okay to ignore physical distancing.
It matters who is talking to Black people as much as it matters what is being said. Historically, messages from African-American pulpits, organizational leaders like the NAACP, and civic groups have always been trusted and reliable sources of information. These groups should have been part of the first line of defense for explaining the power of social distancing and the need to ensure that we are protecting the most vulnerable in our communities. Instead, we have been absent from the national narrative.
The media didn’t show pictures of us in the planning stages of the Coronavirus response. There were no images of Black pastors and community leaders standing alongside elected officials urging churchgoers to stay home. And they haven’t been drawing the lines that need to be drawn—that these disparities exist because of structural racism. Recently, Media Matters shared the findings of a month-long study that shows that the media basically ignored the experiences of people of color in its news coverage of COVID-19 and its relationship to environmental justice issues. They found that of the 16 segments that linked air pollution to Coronavirus and higher death rates for communities of color, only two made it to prime-time programming. While mainstream media discusses the need for PPE, ICU beds and ventilators, Black hospitals in the Mississippi Delta are facing bankruptcy and healthcare professional shortages. Instead of seeing the disproportionate impact on black communities, we get to watch one of the few Black members of the President’s cabinet, the Surgeon General, insult us by telling Black people to avoid drugs and alcohol to protect us from Coronavirus. It’s like a bad version of The Hunger Games. We were behind from the very beginning and have been asked to catch up, while others are running just as fast to ensure their own survival.
Even when we die from this awful virus we’re undercounted. The rapid spread of Coronavirus coupled with underlying health conditions of many black communities and lack of access to testing means that Black bodies are more likely to arrive at funeral homes without conclusive causes of death. The added stress of not knowing if a loved one had been infected with COVID-19 makes matters so much worse for the already overwhelmed families dealing with an unexpected death.
The actions being taken by the Environmental Protection Agency—the very agency that is supposed to protect human health—is even scarier for black communities. In the midst of a crisis, Trump’s EPA is steamrolling environmental protections that ensure polluters don’t poison the air we breathe and the water we drink. Clean cars, science censorship, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard, and all things that protect the air we breathe but are particularly important to disproportionately impacted poor and black and brown communities, are being swept away as we are distracted by Coronavirus. Trump’s EPA is even going so far as to shorten the time for statutorily mandated comment periods, taking full advantage of the fact that our entire country is at a standstill and unable to respond.
Even when leaders in our community do speak up, they are silenced. Black mayors are subjected to targeting by state officials while white mayors are employing the exact same measures without shaming. Robyn Tannehill, my mayor here in Oxford, Miss., has supported strict shelter-in-place measures—by city order restaurant dining rooms, retail shops and gatherings in excess of 10 people (including churches) warrant a $1,000 fine and businesses that allow people to enter without a mask are subject to $1,000 fine as well. However, in Greenville, Miss., my hometown where I served as Mayor for eight years, Mayor Errick D. Simmons is being ostracized for implementing a $500 fine for gatherings in excess of 10 people. In the meantime, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves proclaimed April “Confederate Heritage Month,” a slap in the face to the thousands of African-American residents of Mississippi.
The blatant disregard and devaluing of Black lives doesn’t stop there. Across the South, we’ve seen governors push to re-open their states in an effort to get the economy moving while knowing full well that the living sacrifice would be the black and brown souls whose ability to work is the currency to start the state’s economic engine. In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp refused reason and (audible gasp) the recommendation of President Donald Trump when he declared the state would re-open and nail salons, tattoo parlors, and bowling alleys would be included. Within days of the state’s reopening, the New York Times reported that 83 percent of the hospitalized Coronavirus patients were Black. When we think of the people who are in the service industry—hotel housekeepers and janitors, bus drivers and porters, waitresses, and beauty technicians—it’s easy to see how the African-American community is so quickly impacted. While I’m still trying to understand how a bowling alley is considered an essential service, I am certain that the people who work in these and other hourly wage jobs look a lot more like me than Governor Kemp.
Thankfully, some states and cities have governors and mayors who have been true leaders. We should never forget that the first mayor to order shelter-in-place was London Breed of San Francisco, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s “Stay Home, Save Lives” campaign has created such buzz that Chicago residents have created cutouts of her image encouraging each other to stay home. And I have seen leadership that gives me hope about how we are adjusting to COVIDing While Black. Under the cloud of reports from places like Albany, Georgia, and the massive outbreak of virus cases after a Black funeral, there are places like Milwaukee, Wis. where neighbors are taking matters into their own hands. Unable to find suitable supplies in their own neighborhood stores, out-of-work residents were hired to travel to neighboring white communities to purchase supplies and distribute among those neediest. I smiled upon learning that my cousin, Aaron Jones of Busheler’s of Baltimore and co-founder of Treason Toting Company, turned his successful tailor shop into a factory that produces masks in the black community.
A day after that long walk in the driveway, I breathed a sigh of relief when I received a text that my hometown pastor canceled service and moved to an online platform. There’s still much more that can be done and it helps to see our own faces taking leadership. The storm of COVID-19 is not over, and it is leaving too many Black, brown, and poor bodies in its wake. But the black community is strong and we are survivors. Our ancestors didn’t suffer atrocities for us to perish in an isolated mass. We will call out air pollution in our neighborhoods as we search out masks and gloves for our children. We will register and vote, reminding those in power that our voices cannot be silenced or suppressed.
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