Tlaib: With COVID-19, 'hot spots' means African American spots

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib said Saturday night that when she sees the statistics on COVID-19 in minority communities, she sees systemic racism — and when she hears a common term for heavily affected areas, she hears evasion.

“They call it hot spots,” she said during an online forum whose panelists included author and Harvard professor Dr. Cornel West and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley. “You mean the African American communities. I want them to call it that.”

In this image from video, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., speaks on the floor of the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, April 23, 2020.

The Zoom gathering hosted by Tlaib, D-Detroit, was titled "How COVID19 Disproportionately Impacts the Black Community," with national and local speakers also speaking on policing, incarceration, Detroit property taxes, lack of access to healthy food and the armed protesters in Lansing.

"A lot of folks are acting so surprised" about the high death rates, West said, but "it's true in Detroit, it's true in Wisconsin, it's true in Chicago, across the board."

"Black folks have been slowly dying for a long time because of ecosystems that don’t support us surviving and thriving," said Pressley, D-Ma. "Now it's just happening more bluntly, in a more acute way."

In Michigan, where African Americans represent 14.1% of the population, 32% of all confirmed coronavirus patients have been black as of Saturday. The figure is even higher — 40% — for fatalities.

MORE: Whitmer extends eviction suspensions through June 11

Tlaib, whose district includes parts of Detroit along with multiple western and Downriver suburbs, noted that cities with large black populations, among them Ecorse, River Rouge, Romulus and Redford Township, have roughly double the rate of infection as the rest of Wayne County.

At the outset of the pandemic in Michigan, it was feared that the virus could lead to higher incidence of death in Detroit, where the population is afflicted with higher rates of pre-existing conditions known to worsen the outcomes for those with COVID-19. Among them: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and even diabetes. Some pre-existing conditions are known to impact blacks at higher rates.

Also, Detroiters are less likely to have health insurance, to have seen a health professional recently and are more likely to rely on public transportation, which is a suspected transmission point of the disease. 

Detroit is the most impoverished big city in the nation; it also has the most concentrated population of African-Americans of any major U.S. city.

According to state data, Wayne County's COVID-19 death rate of 19.6%, which doesn't include deaths in Detroit, is more than four times higher than the state average.

Tlaib noted that some contributing factors have gone unnoticed, with attention diverted to things like "these white men (who) show up with guns" in the State Capitol.

Meantime, the first-term congresswoman said, some residents in Detroit and Highland Park have no access to water: "They can't wash their hands in the middle of a pandemic."

Bernadette Atuahene, a senior research scholar at the University of Michigan law school, tied the armed protesters to the need for African Americans to "take back the narrative."

"In the black community," she said, "it's a double death — a mortal death and a financial death."

Poor people, Atuahene said, don't have the sorts of jobs that can be done remotely. The protesters "think they are carrying the burden of the shutdown, when in fact we are."

While the standard narrative wants to "make this a moment of, 'We’re all in this together,'" said television host and Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill, that ignores “a deeper structural issue.

“We are all vulnerable. But the people who were already vulnerable are now even more vulnerable.”

Nationally, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans constitute 27.2% of COVID-19 cases, though they represent 13.4% of the population.

The disparities in Michigan have been severe enough that on April 9, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer put Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II in charge of a task force to find ways to address them. That was only a week after the first statewide release of mortality rates by race.

The executive order creating the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities was signed April 20. Among other things, the committee's two dozen members have been asked to suggest ways to reduce the impact of medical bias in testing and treatment, and mitigate environmental and infrastructure factors that contribute to excessive exposure during pandemics.

"A lot of this is structural," Devita Davison said Saturday. The executive director of FoodLab Detroit tied the high casualty rate to such enduring problems as poor air quality in minority-heavy areas, limited access to health care, and the issues with access to healthy food that she called "food apartheid."

"We have to realize that it does not have to be this way," she said. "But it is."

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn