Bankole: Pandemic forces America to confront black health disparities

Bankole Thompson

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing the nation to reckon with the reality of racial disparities in our health care system. This much is clear from reports of how major urban centers like Detroit, Chicago and New Orleans are COVID-19 killing fields. And people are dying largely because of chronic illnesses that are the result of longstanding health inequities.

Even though there are no publicly available numbers currently on the racial makeup of people dying in Detroit from the virus, the statistics from the state show that while blacks make up 14% of the population, they account for 40% of COVID-19 deaths so far.

Robert Newman, 53, says he's been homeless in Detroit since 1986, with the exception of prison and treatment centers. 'They were trying to get me a place to stay until this coronavirus hit, then everything went into quarantine, says Newman,' as he sits at Grand Circus Park, Tuesday, April 7, 2020.

In Louisiana, where blacks are 32% of the state population, 70% of those killed by the pandemic are black. The numbers are jarring in Chicago as well, where 72% of all coronavirus deaths are of blacks. 

On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged during a White House briefing the significant health disparities that blacks face in the era of the coronavirus. 

It is important to hear the nation’s top COVID-19 expert admit from the White House how health disparities adversely impact life expectancy for many black people, who live in places like Detroit that have a high concentration of poverty.

But affirming the racial disparities in health care is one thing. Taking concrete steps to address the issue is another. It is time to take the necessary steps to right the wrongs that are ingrained in the health sector. 

One way to begin to do that is to first provide complete and accurate data on the COVID-19 impact on blacks. 

“I have grave concerns that African American communities are being hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and that racial bias may be impacting the access they receive to testing and health care," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

"Equal access to health care is a critical civil rights issue, and during this novel pandemic, the public deserves nothing less than full transparency from this administration and state public health officials."

The Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group this week dispatched a demand letter signed by 400 medical professionals to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asking that they release daily racial and ethnic demographic data related to COVID-19 testing. The group, which filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the CDC seeking race and ethnicity data for coronavirus tests, cases and outcomes, is also asking health departments around the country to provide similar information.

“Black Americans face insurmountable barriers to testing and treatment for COVID-19. Private COVID-19 testing is costly, and government-administered testing is severely restricted. These barriers are exacerbated by the fact that racial minorities are suddenly uninsured, as they are overrepresented in recently shuttered industries, such as travel, retail, restaurant and hospitality,” the letter stated.

“Accurate and transparent reporting of national race and ethnic demographic COVID-19 data will help public health officials and advocates determine whether marginalized communities of color are experiencing higher barriers to accessing testing, and higher rates of infection and mortality. The absence of this critical data on a national scale will severely hamper the ability to develop robust public health interventions responsive to the needs of communities of color.”

Clarke added, “We know that Detroit and Flint are hotspots. These are cities that also bear the effect of systemic discrimination. African Americans are more likely to be uninsured, unable to stay at home because of employer demands, and subject to bias at every stage of the health care system.”

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at 11 a.m. weekdays on Superstation 910AM.