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Why COVID-19 is raging through Chicago’s black neighborhoods — and what must be done

Seventy-two percent of Chicagoans who have died of COVID-19 are African American. Social and economic factors play a role.

A sign over the Dan Ryan Expressway warns against large gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing is especially important for African Americans who are at greater risk of COVID-19.
A sign over the Dan Ryan Expressway warns against large gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing is especially important for African Americans who are at greater risk of COVID-19.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Monday brought another grim statistic about the coronavirus to Chicago: African Americans are catching the disease and dying from it at an alarmingly higher rate than the rest of us.

It is indeed, as Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, a “public health red alarm.” Seventy-two percent of those who have died of COVID-19 in Chicago as of Sunday were black, though the city’s African American population is only about 30 percent. More than half of those who had tested positive are black.

In Cook County, 58% of COVID-19 deaths as of last Friday were of African Americans, who make up just 23% of the county’s population, an analysis by WBEZ found. And in the entire state of Illinois, African Americans now account for 38% of confirmed cases of coronavirus and 41% of deaths, but only 14% of the population.

What’s going on here?

Nothing that should surprise anybody, disheartening as it is.

Health outcomes in the United States have never been fair and equal, not in Chicago or anywhere else. And there has never been health care equity. Black folks have always suffered from higher rates of dangerous medical conditions, such as hypertension and diabetes, that correlate with lower incomes and poorer health care.

Even before the pandemic, the life expectancy gap between black and white Chicagoans was nine years. COVID-19 just makes that shameful inequity more obvious.

This is far from just a local embarrassment. In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, African Americans make up almost 81% of COVID-19 deaths, ProPublica found. In Michigan, 40% of COVID-19 fatalities are African American, the Detroit News reported.

And then there’s predominantly black Orleans Parish in Louisiana, where the COVID-19 infection rate is a shocking 892 per 100,000 people — higher than the rates of New York, Los Angeles, and Miami combined, The Atlantic points out.

Why virus is hurting blacks most

Several social and economic factors help explain why so many more people of color are contracting the virus.

For one, many people of color hold jobs that simply don’t allow for working at home, as so many white collar professionals are doing. Anyone who works as a grocery store clerk, bus driver or a car mechanic can’t practice social distancing to the same extent as a lawyer or corporate executive — or journalist — who can all telecommute.

Only about 1 in 5 black workers, and 1 in 6 Hispanic workers, have jobs that allow them to work from home, an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute found. Among low wage workers overall, the number is even lower: less than one in 10 can telecommute.

Many of these workers, too, rely on public transit, which adds to the risk.

So if you’re a nursing home aide, health care worker or delivery driver, you hop on the bus because you can’t afford not to go to work. And you pray you don’t come in contact with someone else on the bus, or a co-worker or client, who’s carrying the virus.

Lower-wage workers, too, cannot rely on ordering groceries from Instacart, or dinner via GrubHub. It’s too expensive. A trip to the grocery store or maybe a fast food restaurant is the only option — and yet another chance to get sick.

Health conditions create more risk

Meanwhile, African Americans are more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions — high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, asthma and other respiratory problems — that can make COVID-19 more deadly.

Consider Illinois’ first victim of COVID-19, 61-year-old Patricia Frieson.

A retired African American nurse from Auburn Gresham, Frieson suffered from asthma and developed breathing problems that led to her death. Her sister, 63-year-old Wanda Bailey, also died of COVID-19; she had hypertension, heart disease and chronic lung problems.

Among all Chicagoans who have died from the virus, 97% suffered from underlying health problems, city data show.

Stay home

What’s to be done?

Mayor Lightfoot on Monday presented a city plan essentially aimed at getting the message out more forcefully in communities of color and monitoring cases early. There will be more outreach workers. There will be more well-being checks.

If those sound like pretty basic steps, they are. But then, everything about slowing the spread and beating back the coronavirus is basic. There is no magic cure, though President Trump has been talking up an untested drug, hydroxchloroquine. There is no vaccine.

For now, there is only this: social distancing. And so we once again urge everyone — and perhaps most especially African Americans — to practice social distancing as much as humanly possible. There’s even a reminder on the front cover of our paper every day, above the words Chicago Sun-Times.

We know that’s easy for us to say. We are so aware, and frankly grateful, that we are writing this from the safety of our homes. We know that others cannot.

But we’ll say it again all the same.

As much as possible, just stay home.

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