When white America catches a cold, black America catches pneumonia

Black people will continue to die at disproportionally higher rates than white Americans as a result of COVID-19. It is imperative that black Americans remain hypervigilant.

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A Chicago Transit Authority security guard wears a face mask as she heads into work in the Loop, Tuesday morning, April 7, 2020.

African Americans are more likely to have jobs that have been deemed “essential” during the pandemic, writes U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, making it impossible for them to stay home.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Every few years, America catches a nasty “cold” that afflicts untold damage on its communities and citizenry. These colds aren’t always pathological, and they manifest in different forms, but the carnage they wreak on our nation’s most vulnerable is always staggering.

In 2005, this cold took the form of one of the costliest hurricanes on record, slamming into Louisiana and Texas and leaving $125 billion in damage in its wake. A few years later, we suffered as a nation from the Great Recession, which was brought on by the collapse of the housing market and further decimated the already waning middle class. And in the latter part of the 2010s, we have lived through a scourge of mass shootings that have left virtually no part of the country untouched.

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These colds have impacted all Americans, but it is always the most vulnerable who fair the worst by far, particularly when it comes to the black community. Hurricane Katrina devastated a region, but effectively obliterated the black middle class there; the Great Recession damaged the entire economy, but, by all accounts, was particularly disastrous for black Americans and further widened the already vast racial wealth gap; and although America is rightfully fixated by the mass shootings that happen at our schools, churches, and concert venues around the country, there have been 36 mass shootings in my district — which is a majority-minority district — since 2013 alone.

Over the history of our country, we have weathered a number of these sorts of colds, but in every case, it is clear that when America catches a cold, the black community has caught pneumonia. This time, however, there is an actual virus that is ravaging our nation. Specifically, a severe acute respiratory syndrome brought on by a novel coronavirus, and it has proven to be particularly deadly for the African American community.

As of April 4, out of the 86 recorded deaths from COVID-19 in Chicago, 61 were black residents. Less than 30 percent of Chicago’s population is black, and yet this population makes up a full 70 percent of those who have succumbed to this disease. Looking at Cook County as a whole, we are seeing strikingly similar trends. African Americans, who make up only 23 percent of Cook County’s population, represent 58 percent of the county’s COVID-19 deaths.

Tragically, these terrible trends are not unique to Chicago. In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, African Americans make up about half of the county’s 945 confirmed cases but account for 81 percent of the deaths. In Michigan, which is only 14 percent black, African Americans accounted for 35 percent of the cases and 40 percent of the COVID-19 related deaths.

While these statistics are shocking, they are not a coincidence, and as I have outlined, this situation is, unfortunately, all too predictable. According to an article published in ProPublica last week, “Environmental, economic and political factors have compounded for generations, putting black people at higher risk of chronic conditions that leave lungs weak and immune systems vulnerable: asthma, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.” Furthermore, African Americans are more likely to have jobs that have been deemed “essential” — including those in industries such as health care, transportation, government, and food supply — making it impossible for them to stay home.

What’s equally alarming is the gross amount of misinformation that very well might have led an already vulnerable population to not take this pandemic as seriously as they should have. In the weeks leading up to these staggering deaths, various social media platforms found themselves overrun with an alarming amount of misinformation related to the coronavirus. These falsehoods ranged from fraudulent vaccines and cures for the virus to more outrageous mistruths that claim African Americans are altogether immune to this pathogen.

Although this might make for tempting wishful thinking, the numbers coming out of Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit tell us that this could not be further from the truth.

In the face of the grim reality that black people will continue to die at disproportionally higher rates than white Americans as a result of COVID-19, combined with the startling amount of misinformation being thrown at us online, it is imperative that black Americans remain hypervigilant as we weather America’s latest cold. We must follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance as well as the stay-at-home order issued by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. If you must leave your home, take the necessary precautions and practice social distancing.

On the federal level, I am also calling for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to ensure that the data, clinical trials and access to vaccines and treatments include the communities that are the most likely to catch “pneumonia” when this is all said and done. When vaccines and treatments do become available, the federal government must prioritize hot spots and medically underserved areas when determining distribution, as these areas will need access to tests and treatments as quickly as possible.

America has weathered some terrible colds in the past, but sadly, it has been, and it will continue to be, the black community that catches the resulting pneumonia. If we are going to break that cycle, we must take this current cold deadly serious, and we must ensure that the needs of the black community as it relates to COVID-19 are taken just as seriously as well.

U.S. Rep. Bobby L. Rush, a Democrat, represents Illinois’ 1st Congressional District. He is a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chairman of the Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and sits on the committee’s subcommittee on health.

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