It has been said that when America gets a cold, Black America gets the flu. Never has this statement been more true than during the current COVID-19 pandemic. And while it’s easy to believe that if people chose to take their health seriously, pull themselves out of poverty and get health insurance, they’d be OK, in truth, the issue is far more complex.
Black people have dealt with layers of inequity from the time we were brought to the shores of this country. Human exploitation and health inequity typifies the black experience in America. Medical experimentation in the antebellum and post-antebellum periods was the norm. By the mid-19th century, African Americans were convinced that Western medicine represented pain, punishment and humiliation. Medical experimentation continued well into the 20th century and there are still medical issues that give African Americans valid reason for concern. Why, for instance, is the infant mortality rate for black babies more than twice the rate of other racial groups, with double the risk of dying before their first birthday? Why are there gaps in health insurance coverage, uneven access to services and poorer health outcomes for the African American community than for any other ethnic group though, despite popular opinion, most have health insurance coverage? Cultural history creates cultural DNA and the mistrust of the medical community is not a product of fear but of negative, lived experience.
In addition, the disproportionate effect of the COVID-19 virus in the African American community has been directly tied to underlying conditions that affect this community in greater percentages, such as uncontrolled high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma. When medical treatment is sought, these patients are too often not properly treated. Two cases in point. Serena Williams, who holds 23 Grand Slam tennis titles, was not taken seriously when after childbirth, she complained of shortness of breath. Knowing her own medical history and the fact that blood clots almost took her life in 2011, she alerted a nurse and asked for a CT scan and blood thinner, but the nurse offered pain medication instead. Only after insisting, did a doctor test her and discovered several blood clots in her lungs. She was put on a heparin drip immediately. On March 20, 2020, a 30-year-old African American teacher sought emergency medical assistance because she was having trouble breathing. Though she went to the emergency room twice with the same complaint, her concerns were dismissed. She was assured it was just a panic attack, and she was sent home. It turned out that Rana Mungin had contracted the coronavirus in mid-March and by the time she was finally admitted and put on a ventilator, the virus had taken its toll. This young woman died on April 27, 2020, because her health concerns were not taken seriously.
The National Council of Churches recently published a COVID-19 statement in which it stated “The pandemic has uncovered the systemic racism and classism that is intrinsically part of our national DNA and has shined a light on the vast disparities in our health care system. Large cities are reporting that over 70% of reported deaths are of African Americans. A grossly disproportionate number of people of color are suffering and dying from COVID-19 because of the systematic poverty and racism that plagues our society. We reiterate our determination as a council to work to end racism.” This virus has forced to the forefront what black people have known for eons: that celebrity doesn’t matter, social status doesn’t matter, financial wealth doesn’t matter. As African Americans, our health concerns are discounted, and this is a major contributing factor to the disproportionate number of deaths due to the current pandemic.
What can be done to resolve the racial, economic and health inequities that continue to be barriers for African Americans? I believe seeking justice is the key. The divinely inspired words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoken in 1963 remain instructive for all people of goodwill: “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. It would be fatal for a nation to overlook the urgency of this moment.” We are in a moment that is crying out for change.
Only we can create that change. Are we willing to work for the change that, at last, creates justice for all?
The Rev. Marlyn Bussey is the co-director of the Peninsula Solidarity Cohort, a group of 35 spiritual leaders from diverse traditions working to “leverage moral power for the common good” in San Mateo County. She is also the pastor of St. James AME Zion Church in San Mateo.