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“Exposing U.S. Racism in a Stark New Way”: COVID-19 Kills Disproportionate Number of Black Americans

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We speak with family physician and epidemiologist Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones about how the coronavirus is taking a devastating toll on black Americans, who are disproportionately dying from the virus across the country as a result of entrenched racial inequality. Black Americans are more likely to have chronic health problems and less likely to have insurance. They also make up significant numbers of frontline workers that are still going to work amid the pandemic. Jones is the former president of the American Public Health Association. Her recent piece for Newsweek magazine is headlined “Coronavirus Disease Discriminates. Our Health Care Doesn’t Have To.”

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’re broadcasting from the epicenter of the pandemic in New York City. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we turn to the devastating toll the coronavirus is taking on black Americans, who are disproportionately dying from the virus across the country.

In Michigan and Illinois, African Americans make up, oh, 14 to 15% of the population but account for 41% of the COVID-19 deaths. In Chicago alone, African Americans account for 70% of the city’s deaths, yet just 30% of the population. In Louisiana, one of the hot spots of the virus, African Americans comprise about a third of the population but 70% of the COVID-19 deaths. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who once called the virus the “great equalizer,” said Wednesday black people make up 18% of the deaths in the state despite being 9% of the state population. The Latinx community makes up 29% of New York City but 34% of the deaths, many of them in Queens, the most diverse community in the nation. The actual number of deaths due to COVID-19 will likely be never known, as people, often undocumented, those on the margins of society, are dying at home uncounted.

For more, we turn to Camara Phyllis Jones. She’s a family physician, epidemiologist, past president of the American Public Health Association, her recent piece for Newsweek magazine titled “Coronavirus Disease Discriminates. Our Health Care Doesn’t Have To.”

Why don’t you elaborate on that, Dr. Jones, this issue, and why you see this disparate effect on the African-American population?

DR. CAMARA PHYLLIS JONES: COVID-19 is exposing U.S. racism in a stark new way, because the black and brown bodies are piling up so fast that they can’t be — these deaths can’t be normalized or ignored. And the way that racism is operating in this pandemic is in two separate fronts. It’s increasing exposure to the virus, and it has increased vulnerability to the virus.

So, increasing exposure to the virus because the way that racism, that structures opportunity and assigns value, has structured our educational opportunities and job opportunities, we are in more front-facing, low-income, underappreciated jobs, where we are part of the essential workforce that really isn’t getting its full attention, and certainly not getting the full protection that we need.

Racism has increased the vulnerability of us to this virus, because living in racially segregated communities that are resource segregated, without adequate access to food, and are environmental racism hazard segregated has made us carry in our bodies all of those same diseases — diabetes, high blood pressure, renal disease, asthma — that are making people who get infected to the virus sicker and die faster from it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Jones, even before — I mean, we mentioned the statistics everywhere, but in Chicago, even before the pandemic began, the life expectancy of African Americans was nine years — slightly less than nine years less than white people who live in Chicago. So, could you say, Dr. Jones, what you feel should be done? What steps should be taken to compensate for the disproportionate vulnerability of African Americans, Latinx communities in light of this emergency, health emergency?

DR. CAMARA PHYLLIS JONES: Right. I am so glad that you asked me that question, because we can’t just look at these statistics and then shrug or say, “Oh, well, we expected that.” We have to act.

And so, the way that we act is on both fronts. You asked me: How do we act when we recognize that we already — we have chronically been sicker and dying sooner? What that means is, if we already recognize that, we have to move all of the health resources to those areas where we can already expect higher deaths and all. So we should not have black people already burdened with these diseases living in communities where they can’t get adequate testing, number one, but adequate access to ventilators and health resources, and they’re not. So we need to provide resources according to need. And we can already predict that need.

On that vulnerability side, the other thing that I really need to say is, you will be seeing now in the news lots of different ways of people trying to say, “If we have to ration ventilators, well, maybe we should discount people if they have diabetes or whatever.” We cannot allow that to happen. First of all, we should not be working under a scenario of scarcity, because there’s no reason we have to have scarcity. So we should reject that. But certainly, if we do have one ventilator and three patients, there should never be any counting in of “this person has diabetes or heart disease” in that allocation. I actually think that if it comes down to that, we need to have a random allocation of those resources. We need to value all individuals and populations equally. That’s one of three core principles for achieving health equity.

AMY GOODMAN: Camara Phyllis Jones, let me ask you one last question, and then we’re going to do Part 2 and post it at democracynow.org. This critical lack of testing that has completely compromised the public health response in this country, you have talked about the fact that that discriminates against African Americans, as well, where people can even get tests.

DR. CAMARA PHYLLIS JONES: Yes, that’s true, where people can get tests. But I have to say, the kind of haphazard way that we’ve approached testing is affecting all of us. It’s affecting our ability to alter the course of the epidemic. The way that we’re using testing in this country right now is to confirm diagnosis in a very narrow, one person by one person, kind of clinical, in the medical space way. What we —

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 20 seconds.

DR. CAMARA PHYLLIS JONES: So, what we really need to do is we need to find out everybody who has the disease, and we need to do a public health testing. Test those with symptoms. Test those — sample those who don’t have symptoms, so that we can distribute our resources, so that we can identify and isolate people who have the disease before they’re symptomatic, while they’re spreading it, and also do contact tracing. That will be for the good of all of us. That way, we don’t document the epidemic; we actually can change the course of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Camara Phyllis Jones, I want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to do Part 2, post it at democracynow.org. Family physician, epidemiologist, past president of the American Public Health Association, currently Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University fellow.

That does it for our show. Thank you to all the team that has made this show possible. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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