Racism is a killer. In a pandemic, it’s a mass murderer.
While staggering, the disproportionately high rates of infection and death in communities of color from coronavirus are not unexpected. Even in a global health crisis, Black and brown people can’t practice social distancing from the systemic, institutional, and foundational racism that overshadows and undermines our lives.
“When you are subjected to racism and internalize racism, it can lead to poor health outcomes,” said Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “We live in a very racist society, so it’s not at all surprising that this is something we need to be aware of and think about as we talk about COVID-19."
In states compiling coronavirus data by race and ethnicity, Black and brown people are dying at rates more than twice their share of the population. Massachusetts is also showing this dire trend. After weeks of pressure from Representative Ayanna Pressley, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and many others, state officials finally released some race and ethnicity data on coronavirus cases and COVID-19 deaths.
Even the limited numbers revealed what Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia already suspected — Black and brown communities are being ravaged by the virus. Black people comprise more than 40 percent of Boston’s coronavirus cases. Chelsea, a city of working-class Latinx immigrants, has the state’s highest incidence rate of infections.
“I grew up in Boston, and I know what health inequities look like based on your zip code,” she said. “We are always at the highest risk for everything. We always bear the brunt of all of these scenarios.”
To address this racial disparity, Mayor Martin J. Walsh has announced the formation of a new COVID-19 Health Inequities Task Force.
From AIDS, which still disproportionately affects Black women, to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans’s predominantly Black neighborhoods, disasters explode into repercussive catastrophes for Black and brown people.
To ignore the virus’s impact on communities of color is to deny the impact of racism itself. This is the result of decades of substandard housing; living in food deserts, which can lead to higher rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease; and more respiratory diseases, due to poor environmental conditions. Being underemployed and underinsured has made many Latinx and Black people especially vulnerable in this unprecedented health crisis.
“Stress can also contribute significantly [to health risk factors]," Stanford said. "We know as Black folks that as we walk and live and breathe, we are subjected to much more intense stressors than other populations.”
Mejia points out that “stay-at-home” advisories or orders mean little to people whose jobs don’t allow them that luxury. Many don’t have paid sick leave. Every time they leave the house, when they take mass transit to get to work, they put themselves and their families in harm’s way.
“I call it ‘the privilege gap,’” she said. "If we really want to be honest about this conversation, it’s about those who have and those who have not — and those who have not, had not for a long time. COVID-19 sheds light on a reality a lot of us have already known.”
That’s why it’s not shocking that, despite the advice of health experts, some Black men don’t feel safe wearing a mask in public. Two Black men recently filed a complaint after a police officer last month followed them in a Walmart in Illinois and demanded that they remove their surgical masks. In a video posted to Twitter by one of the young men, he said they were asked to leave the store. In Illinois, Black people make up 15 percent of the population but comprise 42 percent of COVID-19 deaths.
“This pandemic has pulled back the curtain on the deep rooted systemic racism that exists in America right now,” Mejia said. “People are talking about this because of this crisis, but I want to talk about this beyond COVID-19. There has to be a long-term strategy to dismantle systemic racism.”
New information about racial and ethnic disparities does not address testing or treatment, which may reveal still more inequality. Simply knowing the raw statistics about race and ethnicity in this pandemic does not go deep enough, Stanford said. Any data needs to be “quantified in a way that’s meaningful" to achieve “a cohesive and comprehensive statement” about the many ways in which this virus is attacking marginalized communities, and how “we can close the gap.”
Coronavirus does not discriminate. It doesn’t need to. In a nation strategically built on racial and economic inequality, it was never going to be “the great equalizer” some touted. Being a Black or brown person is not a pre-existing condition. Yet this pandemic is a lethal reminder that living in a racist country is.