Why the White House Must Address Coronavirus’s Disproportionate Impacts on African Americans

April 9, 2020 | 1:43 pm
Ronnie Pitman/Flickr
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

Calls are increasing for the federal government to adequately monitor and address racial disparities in testing, treatment, and other actions related to coronavirus. These pleas come amidst growing signs of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on African Americans.

For weeks, Black scientists, elected officials, and other leaders have spoken out about disproportionate impacts of public health threats on Black communities, predicting that the same would be true for coronavirus without good data and an appropriate response.

The data are beginning to prove this to be true. Journalists, including the Associated Press and Akilah Johnson and Talia Buford at Propublica, have dug into the numbers that are available and found that COVID-19 impacts could be reflecting long-standing racial disparities in health, housing and economics.

But we still don’t have enough information to adequately protect people. “Scientists understand we can’t solve problems we can’t see, and there’s no problem more urgent than understanding who is affected by this devastating outbreak and making sure everyone can get the testing and treatment they need,” said UCS president Ken Kimmel.

Marginalized and underserved communities understand the consequences of neglect. As HIV/AIDS ravaged gay communities, the Reagan White House was silent on—and privately laughed about—the growing epidemic. Many more people grew sick and died because of an attitude that ranged from indifference to hostility.

So it was welcome news when, towards the end of the Coronavirus Task Force press conference on Tuesday, with the vice president behind him, Anthony Fauci got up to speak from the heart about the need to address health disparities, both now and over the long term. He also warned about the impact of stigma. I typed up a transcript, which starts at 1:25:18:

I just want to make a brief comment to get back to the discussion about the health disparities in the African American community, because it really is very important. And the reason I want to bring it up because I couldn’t help sitting there reflecting about sometimes when you are in the middle of a crisis, like we are now, with the coronavirus, it really does ultimately shine a bright light on some of the real weaknesses and foibles in our society.

And as some of you know, a greater proportion of my professional career has been defined by HIV/AIDS. And If you go back then, during that period of time when there was extraordinary stigma, particularly against the gay community. And it was only when the world realized how the gay community responded to this outbreak with incredible courage and dignity and strength and activism, I think that really changed some of the stigma against the gay community, very much so.

I see a similarity here because health disparities have always existed in the African American community, but here again with the crisis now, it’s shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is, because yet again, when you have a situation like the coronavirus, they are suffering disproportionately. As Dr. Brix said correctly, it’s not that they are getting infected more often, it’s that when they do get infected, their underlying medical conditions, the diabetes, the hypertension, the obesity, the asthma, those are the things that wind them up in the ICU and ultimately give them a higher death rate. So when all this is over, and as we say, this will end, we will get over coronavirus, but there will still be health disparities that we need to address in the African American community.

It’s lamentable that Dr. Fauci did not get into the many complicated reasons that health disparities for African Americans exist in this crisis, such as wealth gaps, a lack of worker protections, overrepresentation in jobs that require close human contact, reduced access to good health care, more exposure to pollution, and hoarding of food and supplies by wealthy people. “Everything I’m hearing so far about how we’re supposed to deal with the coronavirus assumes we all have the same level of affluence,” environmental justice scholar and activist Robert Bullard told UCS Fellow Derrick Jackson.

“Front-line communities feeling the disproportionate impacts of pollution are dealing with serious chronic medical conditions and underlying health problems, and no one seems to be talking about them in a substantive way,” wrote Mustafa Ali on March 17. Ali left EPA in 2017 when he felt the agency was abandoning the environmental justice office he led.

It’s important that health disparities in the context of coronavirus are getting more attention, and we must keep the spotlight shining. We need better data on where disparities exist. And we need action to address the coronavirus pandemic—and all other public health threats with disproportionate impacts—equitably and effectively.

“We need to take these long-standing inequities into account as we take on both the urgent task of managing this crisis now and the work of rebuilding for the future,” said UCS’s Kimmel.