In Maryland, black people make up 31 percent of the population but 52 percent of the deaths from covid-19. Similar disparities are also showing up in places such as Detroit, New Orleans and Milwaukee and parts of North Carolina and Mississippi.
But as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) pointed out in an interview on Fox News last week, the virus is merely putting a spotlight on the health disparities that have long existed. Virginia State Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver said that higher rates of diabetes, hypertension and obesity among African Americans “place these folks at higher risk of mortality from covid-19.”
The National Medical Association, which represents roughly 50,000 African American physicians, offered a diagnosis of the coronavirus disparity earlier this month.
After looking at six social determinants of health — economic stability, physical environment, education, food community, social content and health-care systems — the NMA issued its findings in a statement April 8:
“These statistics are just an amplification of the ‘Slave Health Deficit’ which has been an aftermath of years of discrimination, unequal treatment and injustices in healthcare, criminal justice and employment,” the NMA said.
Then it offered a treatment plan.
“We call on the federal government, vis-à-vis the CDC, to acknowledge the disparate effect of COVID-19 on the African-American community thus enabling serious, targeted health education to our communities,” the association said. “On both an immediate and long-term basis, efforts need to be redoubled to eliminate the disparities in morbidity and mortality, assure quality health care and eliminate racial discrimination in health care and health research.”
Call it a treatment that has had many trials with few successes.
A prominent group of black pastors has been pointing out how racial disparities are spread. And how to stop them, too.
“We know that pandemics spread through the fissures of our society that are caused by the inequality,” said William J. Barber II, pastor at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., and president of the social justice organization Repairers of the Breach. “So the disease is not just biological but sociological.”
Their cure called on the president to “unleash a recovery bill that focuses on poor and minority communities to ensure people make livable wages and have access to paid sick leave, adequate child care, rent forgiveness and health care.”
Their fix is not a new one.
Yet funds for programs that might improve the health of many people, not just African Americans, are always on the chopping block.
Leading government epidemiologist Anthony Fauci said recently that when we are past the coronavirus, “there will still be health disparities which we really need to address in the African American community.”
But nobody could say when the pandemic would be over. And promises have been made before.
Not everybody is willing to wait indefinitely before doing something about racial disparities, which are killing black people right now.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) had a kind of home remedy for black people in her city.
“Now, we’re not going to be able to erase decades of health disparities in a few days or a week, but we have to impress upon people in these communities that there are things they can do,” she said at a news conference. “There are tools at their disposal that they can use to help themselves, but we have to call this out as it is and make sure we’ve got a very robust, multitiered response now and going forward, and we will.”
Lightfoot didn’t say what she meant by “tools.” And her apparently secret recipe was panned by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an assistant professor of African American studies at Princeton University.
“It is certainly easier to promote these mysterious ‘tools’ than it is to confront the decades-long crisis of disinvestment and unemployment in the city, but that is actually what is necessary to change these circumstances,” Taylor wrote in an article on racial disparities that appeared in the April 16 issue of the New Yorker.
She concluded the piece with her own prescription: “To fulfill the promise that black lives matter, the United States must change in systemic and not superficial ways.”
Could she have been referring to Surgeon General Jerome Adams?
At a news conference last week, he made it seem as if the reasons for the health disparities were not the food deserts so many African Americans live in. Or the neighborhoods where lead in the homes, in the water is a reality. Or the regions where there are no doctors or clinics for those with little or no health insurance. His advice was to avoid alcohol, tobacco and drugs during the pandemic.
“We need you to do this, if not for yourself then for your abuela,” Adams said. “Do it for your granddaddy. Do it for your big mama. Do it for your pop-pop. . . . We need you to step up.”
So here we have five prescriptions to cure the racial disparities ailing black America.
One from a big-city mayor that asks African Americans to use unspecified “tools” to help themselves. One from the nation’s surgeon general that ignores the policies that have made alcohol and tobacco more accessible in some neighborhoods than fruits and vegetables. And three from an African American doctors group, African American ministers and an African American professor — all calling on the United States to address the economic inequalities at the root of the racial disparities.
Let’s see how long it takes our elected and health officials to move from acknowledging the root of the disparities to prescribing the fix.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.