WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately harmed communities of color, laying bare the systemic racial disparities across the United States, experts told Congress this week.
Early evidence suggests there are elevated rates of infection and death from COVID-19 in African-American populations and other communities of color.
Nationwide, Black Americans are dying at nearly two times the rate of their population share, according to the COVID Project from the Atlantic. And Latino Americans are disproportionately testing positive for the virus in 41 states and Washington, D.C., according to the COVID Project.
In Michigan, African Americans compose 31% of coronavirus cases and 40% of deaths, while only composing about 14% of the population. The person’s race is unknown in 16% of cases and 4% of deaths in Michigan.
Detroit, which is about 80% African American, has been hit hard by COVID-19, with almost 11,000 cases as of Saturday, roughly 19% of Michigan’s total. The state’s largest city has had 1,370 people died of COVID-19, about 25% of Michigan’s total fatalities.
“This is the racial pandemic within the viral pandemic,” said Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University and one of the creators of the COVID racial data tracker. He’s also the author of “How to Be an Antiracist.”
Kendi testified at a hearing Wednesday in the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, the powerful tax-writing committee in Congress.
The historic hearing was the first official virtual hearing in the House of Representatives, as lawmakers make unprecedented changes to the way they operate on Capitol Hill.
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) sits on the committee and said that the “devastating loss of this crisis is personal, if you know someone who has been lost in this pandemic.” He talked about three of his friends, all African-American, who have died of COVID-19, noting that, “The loss during this pandemic is disproportionally affecting African Americans.”
“Ruben Burks, a former UAW secretary treasurer, was an exceptional leader in my community and a strong voice for workers. I will miss Ruben as a friend and a mentor,” Kildee said. “Dr. Nat Burtley, Flint’s first African-American superintendent, took me under his wing when I was an 18-year-old teenager on the Flint Board of Education. Dr. Burtley was a remarkable educator and leader. Deacon Al Peacock, a lifelong Flint resident, all-star high school basketball player and a devoted community member, was one of my high school classmates.”
Kildee added that has the country hit 100,000 deaths, “Let’s step back from the data and realize that these are individuals with their own stories.”
U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) added that “while the virus may be new, this story is as old as the Republic itself — the disparate ways in which this virus is impacting African American and Hispanic communities.”
Pandemic highlights disparities
Kendi said lawmakers need to look at policy across the board and its effects on race.
“People of color want freedom,” Kendi said. “I am not talking about freedom to get a haircut. I am talking about the most fundamental freedoms that have been denied for far too long, freedom from infection, freedom from death.”
Kendi and other researchers developed the tracking website due to gaps in data and reporting on how the virus is affecting people of color. Kendi says years of racist policies have led to this point.
“We should be asking why are Black and Latino people less likely to be working from home, less likely to be insured, less likely to live in unpolluted neighborhoods,” Kendi told lawmakers. “The answer is racist policy.”
Dr. Alicia Fernandez, a professor of medicine at the University of California in San Francisco, said that at her hospital, most of the Latinos who are testing positive from COVID-19 are unable to work from home.
“COVID-19 has revealed the great health impact of how we work and live, the social determinants of health,” said Fernandez.
U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), who has recovered from his own bout with the virus, touted economic growth as the solution.
“The return to a very robust and dynamic economy, isn’t that the cure for a lot of the things we want to get done?” Kelly said. “I think the answer to almost everything we are talking about right now is that every single American has the same opportunity as another American, regardless of where you live, the color of your skin, how you worship, or your gender.”
Kelly was diagnosed with COVID-19 at the end of March after testing positive at a drive-through testing site at Butler Memorial Hospital.
‘There’s an urgency’
As communities and businesses begin to reopen, testing and contact tracing are seen as key to keep the virus from spreading. But experts say states need to make sure the access is equitable.
“In order to protect the lives of the most vulnerable populations in our society without a vaccine and without a drug, the only thing to do is to keep those populations from infections in the first place. That is going to take testing and contact tracing,” said Dr. James Hildreth, president and CEO of Meharry Medical College in Tennessee.
Hildreth and leaders from the three other historically Black medical schools — Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in California, Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta — want lawmakers to fund a consortium from their schools that would provide expanded testing, contact tracing and research. They say their institutions are poised to work with community groups and churches to create networks of contact tracers that people can trust.
“There’s an urgency here that I cannot overstate that we need to be doing these things now,” Hildreth said.
U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Pa.) said universal testing is needed to get the data that can form the groundwork to combat disparities.
“We talk about the need for data,” Evans said. “We often talk about death rate and treatments, but testing sometimes gets lost in the midst.”
In Evans’ Philadelphia district, a group of African-American doctors and churches formed the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium to provide COVID-19 tests and address the disproportionate effects the pandemic has had on African Americans in Philadelphia.
Testing sites are not always readily available to some communities across the United States.
Only four states currently have public racial breakdowns for everyone who is tested: Nevada, Delaware, Kansas and Illinois. And a new analysis from National Public Radio found that testing sites are disproportionately located in whiter neighborhoods in four out of six of the largest cities in Texas. Testing disparities have also been reported in New York City and Chicago.
House Democrats included funding for testing centers in minority communities as part of the wide-ranging coronavirus relief package they approved earlier this month. The bill is unlikely to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate.
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), also introduced legislation Wednesday intended to increase capacity for testing in underserved areas. The Rapid Testing for Communities Act would give grants to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to support testing outside of labs, with priority for underserved areas.
“These conversations can be difficult, but we are at a crucial stage and as communities begin to loosen restrictions, these will worsen,” House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.), said at the conclusion of the hearing Wednesday.
“We can save lives by understanding what communities of color need and taking action.”
This week, Kildee touted a $1.7 million federal grant to Great Lakes Bay Health Centers in his 5th Congressional District for primary care, dental, behavioral health and coronavirus testing services to medically underserved communities, including veterans, amid the pandemic.
“The coronavirus pandemic tragically has taken more than 100,000 lives and continues to disproportionately impact underserved communities in our state,” said Kildee.