‘We’ve been failed’

Black Chicagoans have been dying of covid-19 at an alarmingly high rate, forcing leaders to confront a system of neglect.

African Americans are still dying of covid-19 at more than two times the rate of all other groups in the country. In Illinois, the first known person to die of the disease caused by the coronavirus was Patricia Frieson, a black retired nurse from Chicago’s South Side who passed away on March 16. Since then, more than 1,000 black Chicagoans have died of covid-19. That’s 136 deaths per 100,000 people — more than 2½ times as high as the death rate for white Chicagoans.

Marvin Forbish was born and raised in Chicago, and was a well-known figure on the South Side. He was a Cubs fan, and ran a printing business for 30 years. In normal times, there would have been a large church funeral to remember him. The pandemic made that impossible. His widow, Myra Forbish, said not being able to give him a proper memorial added to the family’s grief.

Scroll to hear interview arrow-down

In April, as the pandemic began to take hold in Chicago, black residents accounted for almost 70 percent of the deaths, despite making up just 30 percent of the city’s population. Even as cases have declined there, the deaths of African Americans still outweigh their share of the local and state populations. This is also true in 30 states and the District of Columbia, according to data compiled by APM Research Lab.

Linda Veasley-Payne and her sister, Bridget Stewart, lost their mother to covid-19 in May. While on their way to deliver her burial clothes to the funeral home, the sisters learned that their grandmother had died of the virus.

Scroll to hear interview arrow-down

The Veasley sisters held a joint memorial for their mother and grandmother at Leak & Sons, a funeral home business with three locations that has served black Chicagoans for almost 90 years. Spencer Leak Jr. had to purchase additional hearses during the pandemic and expand his refrigeration room to accommodate three times the number of bodies.

Scroll to hear interview arrow-down

Even before the pandemic, Chicago had the widest racial life expectancy gap in the country. In the most stark illustration, residents of a predominantly white neighborhood in the north of the city live 30 years longer on average than residents of a largely black neighborhood just nine miles to the south, according to a 2019 analysis at New York University of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The pandemic is also playing out along the same neighborhood border lines. Predominantly black areas with lower life expectancy rates have had the highest death tolls.

The racial disparities extend across everyday life: Thirty percent of Chicago’s black families live below the poverty line, compared to 10 percent of white families. On the city’s South and West sides, up to 1 million residents live more than half a mile from a pharmacy. Black Chicagoans are more likely to be front-line workers and less likely to have health insurance, making them more vulnerable to severe infection.

David A. Ansell, the author of “The Death Gap: How Inequality Kills,” has dedicated his career to studying inequities in the U.S. health-care system, with a focus on Chicago. He was blunt in an interview with The Post: “This doesn’t need more study,” he said. “We don’t need more data. We don’t need more reports. We don’t need people who are surprised and shocked by the disparity. We need collectively as a nation to take action, because shame on us if we don’t.”

Jitu Brown, the national director for the Journey for Justice Alliance and a community organizer on the South Side, has spent years making similar appeals for action, long before the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in police custody forced a national reckoning over racism. He has seen his neighborhood hollowed out by decades of disinvestment, by the closing of schools, hospitals and grocery stores.

Scroll to hear interview arrow-down

Lori Lightfoot, Chicago’s first black female mayor, was among the first leaders nationally to speak out about the link between structural racism and higher covid-19 mortality rates among people of color.

Scroll to hear interview arrow-down

In April, Lightfoot’s office created a Racial Equity Rapid Response Team to deliver personal protective equipment to residents of three hard-hit neighborhoods and held virtual town hall meetings to address misinformation about the coronavirus. Lightfoot credits Rush University Medical Center with laying the groundwork for the city’s response to the mortality disparity.

The link between social inequality and health has long been a research focus for Rush, and the hospital system runs community programs to address health-care gaps in Chicago neighborhoods. Angela Moss, a nurse and assistant professor at Rush, leads many of these partnerships.

Scroll to hear interview arrow-down

Marshall Hatch is the pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park. He says the pandemic is yet another crisis for the neighborhood, which already has the highest rate of gun violence in Chicago. In a single week, Hatch lost a friend who had been the best man at his wedding, and his 73-year-old sister, Rhoda Jean Hatch.

Scroll to hear interview arrow-down
About this story

Data for covid-19 deaths in Chicago is from the Chicago Department of Public Health. Life expectancy data is from the Centers for Disease Control.

Reporters: Rhonda Colvin, Zoeann Murphy. Senior producers: Reem Akkad, Jesse Mesner-Hage. Text editor: Simone Sebastian. Designer: Jake Crump. Graphics Editor: Tim Meko.