2020's novel coronavirus may have begun in China, but it crept into U.S. cities like Milwaukee, Wis. through a white, affluent suburb. Now, it has completely exploded within communities of color.
This same pattern is playing out in metropolitan areas across America, from the epicenter in New York City to regional hot spots in Detroit, Mich., New Orleans, La., and beyond.
Though many places are not keeping records by race and tracking the breakdown of coronavirus cases and COVID-19 deaths, Milwaukee is one of the few places that is. According to ProPublica, the disproportionate way this disease is attacking black people is absolutely staggering.
(via ProPublica): As of Friday morning, African Americans made up almost half of Milwaukee County’s 945 cases and 81% of its 27 deaths in a county whose population is 26% black.
In Michigan, where the state’s population is 14% black, African Americans made up 35% of cases and 40% of deaths as of Friday morning. Detroit, where a majority of residents are black, has emerged as a hotspot with a high death toll. As has New Orleans. Louisiana has not published case breakdowns by race, but 40% of the state’s deaths have happened in Orleans Parish, where the majority of residents are black.
Similar results are emerging from both Illinois and North Carolina, which are both also publishing statistics on COVID-19 cases by race.
For a population already struggling with health issues and chronically neglected when it comes to adequate health care, financial and housing opportunities, and food deserts, COVID-19 is often "the nail in the coffin," says Dr. Celia J. Maxwell, an infectious disease physician and associate dean at Howard University College of Medicine.
Even before the global pandemic arrived, black people were already suffering from "disproportionately high rates of maternal death, low levels of access to medical care and higher rates of asthma," said Dr. Camara Jones, a family physician, epidemiologist and visiting fellow at Harvard University.
“COVID is just unmasking the deep disinvestment in our communities, the historical injustices and the impact of residential segregation,” said Jones, who spent 13 years at the CDC, focused on identifying, measuring and addressing racial bias within the medical system. “This is the time to name racism as the cause of all of those things. The overrepresentation of people of color in poverty and white people in wealth is not just a happenstance. … It’s because we’re not valued.”
Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik says the city declared racism to be a public health issue and that both the city and country have become more transparent about the way they handle public health challenges. The county, for example, now has an online dashboard of coronavirus cases, and it maintains up-to-date information on the racial breakdown of those who have tested positive.
Yet that alone cannot undo decades' worth of mistrust within the black community toward the healthcare sector, especially since some people who are displaying symptoms and seeking treatment aren't necessarily being hospitalized. Even now, some people are being sent home and “told to self-medicate.” Some are dying even before their test results even arrive. Others are passing away in hospitals and in hospice care.
“What black folks are accustomed to in Milwaukee and anywhere in the country, really, is pain not being acknowledged and constant inequities that happen in health care delivery,” Kowalik said.
On top of chronic health conditions, many black people are at higher risk due to their jobs. In order to lock in a reliable income, they have jobs in "essential functions" with the health care, transportation, government, and food supply industries.
Locally, the city and state have taken several steps to assist workers being victimized by non-compliant business owners, levying fines against those who force staff to come to work or who do not practice social distancing in the workplace. Residents have also been "urged to call 211 if they need help with anything from finding something to eat or a place to stay. And the state has set up two voluntary isolation facilities for people with COVID-19 symptoms whose living situations are untenable, including a Super 8 motel in Milwaukee."
This problem extends far beyond Wisconsin, however, and not every state is responding in kind. In the end, the death toll will inevitably rank highest among the black and brown people who built this country's foundations and who are keeping it running throughout the pandemic.