Pandemic’s lesson for African Americans — we must take control of our health

The coronavirus is a wake-up call to find ways to change our behaviors.

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A sign is seen on the sidewalk in downtown Chicago on Wednesday. Gov. Pritzker recommends Illinois residents wear masks when in public, and he issued a stay-at-home order to fight the coronavirus.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

The truth is out. Black people are dying from COVID-19 and its underlying causes at the highest rates. In Chicago, 56 percent of those who have perished at the hands of the virus are African American.

Since African Americans were dragged to this country in chains and shackles, we have been crushed under the sledgehammer of slavery’s legacy — hatred, racism, discrimination and segregation.

That legacy helped put us squarely at the bottom of far too many negative health outcomes. COVID-19 is only the latest.

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That truth has renewed and amplified age-old calls for more federal and local funding for health care and research. We are demanding our fair share — and more — in federal, local and private dollars to support economic development and social services. We are rallying for special initiatives, task forces and “national conversations” to conquer the pernicious health divide.

Here is another, even more crucial truth black folks must know: No one is going to take care of us other than us. Every one of us has a responsibility to take control of our health.

My alter ego, The Fat Nag, comes to you once again.

She does not come to deny that black folks have suffered greatly at the hand of cultural and institutionalized racism. She knows we live in food deserts. Our communities suffer from disparities in health care, jobs, economic development, educational opportunities, affordable housing and myriad other maladies.

We must do more than demand, march and beg for light and life. After eons of pleading, we are dying from a novel new disease we never saw coming. We can no longer afford to be victims.

The coronavirus pandemic is a wake-up call to find ways to change our behaviors and take control.

For generations, African Americans have lived with and died from the “co-morbidities” that feed COVID-19. Diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, obesity run rampant in our midst.

We can permit neither the hateful critics nor well-meaning advocates to “tsk, tsk, tsk” at us, those poor, helpless, hopeless victims.

That means taking a hard look at some of the things we love. Those fried, sweet and buttered things. We love them too much.

We engage in many other co-morbidities, unhealthy behaviors such as tobacco and drug use, gun violence. We do not exercise nearly enough. Obesity has become a way of life.

Our choices matter. We are not the only ones making those choices. But we are in the least position to make poor ones. They are killing far more of us.

We will not conquer the mountain overnight. But we can take the small steps out of the dark shadows that have been illuminated by the pandemic.

We can acknowledge obesity is not the norm. Former first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign long ago sounded the national alarm of childhood obesity. It is not too late to listen.

We can seek out educational information about healthy eating nutrition and practical outlets for physical and mental health.

We must insist on and advocate for programs and efforts that will help change attitudes and unhealthy lifestyles.

The Nag knows what you’ll say. Do not blame the victim. We have suffered too much. This is not the time.

There is no better time to take control.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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