Black America and the Coronavirus Pandemic
By Sherri Williams
Breonna Taylor’s mother worried that her daughter would get COVID-19 while she worked as an emergency medical technician in Louisville, KY. As an essential worker, Taylor, 26, cared for the sick and was in and out of hospitals in the early days of the nation’s coronavirus pandemic.
George Floyd, 46, moved to Minneapolis from Houston to restart his life, reset after some setbacks and to get a job. He was a working man who wanted to take care of his family. He tested positive for COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic was a looming danger in the lives of both Taylor and Floyd, as it was for so many other Black Americans as the highly contagious virus emerged to be a serious nationwide threat toward the end of February. But it was another long standing invisible and insidious force that took their lives — racism, in the form of deadly police violence.
Racism, and the hundreds of years of multiple inequalities it created, birthed an atmosphere that positioned COVID-19 to be ripe to ravage Black America — and it did.
Health disparities left Black Americans vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 and dying from it at higher rates, nearly two times greater than their share of the population. The state of education of Black children, which was already tenuous, was tested as stay-at-home orders imposed online learning that presented challenges for families with no laptops or adequate access to the internet because of the digital divide. Black Americans’ propensity to work in jobs where they serve the public kept them interacting with people daily, putting them at risk to get the virus; others lost jobs as the nation’s unemployment rate spiked — Black Americans had high jobless rates.
By the end of May, Black America found itself immersed in three structural and avoidable major crises: the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, a debilitating economic recession and a fiery racial justice uprising after the videotape of Floyd’s killing by a white police officer became public within weeks of growing awareness of Taylor’s death at the hands of police and the vigilante killing of Ahmaud Arbery by two white men. Tony McDade, a transgender Black man, was fatally shot by police in Florida two days after Floyd’s death.
Taylor was shot by police at least eight times in her Louisville home on March 12, the day before President Donald Trump announced a national emergency because the sometimes-deadly coronavirus, which has no cure, was rapidly infecting and killing people across the country. Police were executing a warrant at Taylor’s home for someone who wasn’t there. Two months later, Floyd died on May 25 after a police officer burrowed his knee into Floyd’s neck and pressed the weight of his body onto Floyd’s as he lay on the pavement with his face and body mashed into the ground. A bystander videotaped the incident, which pushed people out of isolation and into the streets for a renewed era of Black liberation.
Social distancing was abandoned. Rallies for social justice erupted, across the globe and in almost 1,400 cities across the nation for more than three weeks. People crowded the streets, many of them wearing masks to protect themselves against the coronavirus, and demanded justice for Floyd and other Black victims of deadly police violence. Activists also advocated for racial justice in other facets of American life — all in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that killed more than 116,000 Americans by the middle of June.
It is almost impossible to understand what COVID-19 snatched from Black America: the businesses that shuttered after years of work and determination were invested; first-generation high school and college graduation celebrations that families planned for a lifetime that never happened; the loneliness of bringing a life into the world with no family to witness the birth; the solitude of taking the last breath with no forehead kisses, no held hands, no final words; the homegoings with no soothing soulful songs from a choir, no repast to mourn collectively and share blissful memories of the dead. The joy, love, plans, solutions and contributions of those Black America lost to the coronavirus cannot be quantified.
But some of the pandemic’s destruction to Black America can be tracked. More than 25,000 Black people died related to COVID-19, by late-June, according to the COVID Racial Data Tracker — a collaboration between American University’s Antiracist Research & Policy Center and the COVID Tracking Project. There were more than 2 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States by late-June, the most of any nation, according to the Johns Hopkins University and Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center.
Black income and employment disparities were worsened by the coronavirus. The nation lost 44 million jobs. Black America had a 16.8 percent unemployment rate in May, higher than the national unemployment rate of 13.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And 44 percent of Black Americans responding to a Pew Research Center survey in April reported that they or someone in their home lost jobs or wages because of the pandemic. Even though Congress allocated $349 billion to help small businesses stay afloat, 90 percent of businesses owned by women and people of color couldn’t access that money. Some of the financial gains Black Americans finally made in the 12 years after the Great Recession began were wiped out in three months.
All of this could have been avoided with better national leadership and a coordinated federal response, not various state-by-state strategies that states weren’t equipped to roll out, said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP. “This pandemic is man-made. ...It is the direct result of the 2016 presidential election,” Johnson said. “All of the decisions that have been made leading up to this moment can be attributed to...an anemic response from this administration.”
At one of his rallies in North Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 28, Trump said the coronavirus, like the impeachment process and the Russia investigation, was the Democrats’ hoax. Two weeks later, as U.S. infections skyrocketed, he declared a national emergency and quarantine orders spread across the nation as quickly as the virus itself.
But many Black workers couldn’t quarantine and work from home. When the nation shut down, Black workers stepped up. They worked in meatpacking plants, kept the nation’s food supply chain flowing even as the COVID-19 outbreak spread in their factories. Black workers continued to report for duty in warehouses and pack goods. They were the delivery drivers who drove shipments of supplies across the country and meals to homes. When food made it to stores, mostly Black workers stocked the shelves in markets, rang up and bagged food. They used public transportation to get back and forth to work, many were the subway operators and bus drivers — all were vulnerable to the virus in those close spaces. In hospitals Black medical professionals worked as doctors and nurses and cared for COVID-19 patients. Black workers also cooked patients’ food, cleaned their rooms and transported them throughout facilities. Black scientists and researchers worked on a COVID-19 vaccine while others prioritized testing in Black communities. The nation’s working class, across racial identities, kept America’s essential services running.
Many Black employees’ jobs that kept the nation running didn’t allow them to telework and they had to make an agonizing choice to work to support their families while risking contracting COVID-19 and potentially bring it home or stay home and lose their livelihoods, said Robin Williams, retired vice president and civil rights director of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and chair of the NAACP’s labor committee.
“It’s sad that it takes a pandemic to realize that Blacks really service America,” she said. “This pandemic really showed that when it came to people needing the essentials to live they didn’t call on CEOs, not the athletes or performers. It was really the everyday workers that kept, that are still keeping us going even through this pandemic and they’ve done so for centuries in this country.”
Even as Black people kept the nation operating and some contracted the COVID-19 virus while working, officials blamed them for being disproportionately affected by the virus. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told Black Americans to “avoid alcohol, drugs and tobacco” to reduce their chances of contracting COVID-19, suggesting that Black people’s behavior led to their disproportionate COVID-19 deaths. Ohio State Sen. Steve Huffman, also an emergency room doctor, suggested that “the colored population” didn’t wash their hands, use masks and practice social distancing as they should.
Social determinants of health affected by racism and disproportionate access to health insurance are primary reasons why Black Americans suffer from higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, asthma and obesity, said Patrice A. Harris, immediate past president of the American Medical Association. All of those conditions make people vulnerable to COVID-19.
“It’s important that we make sure that we do not blame people who are suffering disproportionately,” the doctor said. “We have these differences and we have these inequities, and it is about much more than behavior. It really is about long standing structural inequities.”
Black people experienced a significant amount of stress and anxiety through the pandemic, which exacerbated the toxic stress they experience daily because of structural racism and racial microaggressions. Harris, a psychiatrist, is concerned about the long-term impact COVID-19 will have on Black Americans’ mental health. The week after George Floyd’s fatal police video became public, Black Americans’ showing anxiety and depression increased from 36 percent to 41 percent, according to census data.
COVID-19 affected Black Americans of all ages. Kandice Knight’s healthy daughter Dar'yana Dyson had a stomach ache and fever. Knight took her to the hospital, but her 15-year-old child never went home. Days later, Dar’yana died and became the youngest person in Maryland to succumb to a COVID-19-related illness.
“All she wanted to do was just live,” said Knight, 32, “She was special to my family. She was special to me. She was there for me the most. I can never imagine a child being there for their mom the way she was there for me.”
Dar'yana died in May, a month before her 16th birthday, and two months after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the nation. The tremors of the coronavirus’ shock waves were felt deeply in Black America. That’s not lost on Knight, who is Black. “I don’t understand why it’s attacking the Black community like this,” said Knight, who said she has three other daughters. Dar'yana was her oldest. “I just don’t understand how me and my little family get attacked by this? I don’t wish this on no one. I just don't understand.”
Knight spoke as she stood in a parking lot while clutching a photo of her daughter where dozens of people gathered at a vigil in May in Baltimore to remember Dar'yana.
The Rev. Howard-John Wesley, pastor at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., knows how painful it has been to be unable to collectively mourn.
“It has been sad,” he said. “The funeral rite is an important way to help people in the grieving process....It’s been a struggle on all levels.”
But there has been communal support for those living with the fallout of the pandemic. Wesley said his church gave almost 300 computer tablets to quarantined students to keep up with their studies during the pandemic and donated about $475,000 in COVID-19 relief to families.
Galvanizing this moment with community coalitions to demand equality from the government for equitable funding for health care and a living wage is necessary to reverse the tide of COVID-19 and pre-existing inequities, said the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. He is also president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, based in Goldsboro, N.C. Repairers is a co-sponsor of the campaign. More than 1.2 million people tuned in for the virtual gathering of the Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March On Washington on June 20.
Said Barber, “To accept anything less would be like saying in slavery to ask the master to give us a long weekend.”