COVID’s Racial Disparities

COVID-19 Pandemic Unmasking Racial and Economic Disparities: why America needs to deliver the promissory note of racial justice-By Dr Sula Mazimba

The coronavirus (aka COVID-19) pandemic has ripped open the covering on the festering wounds of systemic racial inequalities in America.

Health disparities among people of color are a manifestation of deep-seated systemic racial inequalities. The unrivaled strong American economy was partly established on the foundation of cheap slave labor that was wreaked from the exploitation of African Americans. The years following the abolition of slavery were also marked by brutal oppressive segregation laws and systematic discrimination of African Americans from opportunities. This dark legacy of oppression has had a negative impact on the social economic standing of African Americans, heightening their vulnerability to a myriad of social ills and perpetuating intergenerational poverty.

Dark legacy of oppression and Modern Day Social ills The strangling grip of the legacy of slavery and racial disenfranchisement has been responsible for many woes among people of color. Despite America being the strongest economy in the world, African Americans have the worst mortality rate compared to the general population.  Overall, African Americans lack access to healthcare more than the general population, experience a higher prevalence of non-communicable diseases (such as hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and obesity), higher rates of unemployment and endure a justice system that disproportionately metes out more incarcerations compared to other ethnic groups.

COVID-19 highlights underlying health disparities

COVID-19 is now the latest disease condition to be added to the litany of conditions that disproportionately affect African Americans.

From the recent data, African American had disproportionate rates of infections and deaths relative to the general population.

 For example, African Americans only constitute 26% of the population in Milwaukee County and yet had 73% of COVDI-19 related deaths. Similar trends were seen across major US cities (New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Detroit).

A tale of two worlds

Generally, African Americans and Caucasians live in separate worlds. In the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. “the Negro lives on lonely island of poverty in the midst of the vast ocean of material prosperity” still reverberates across the vast American land scape.

The disease conditions that disproportionately plaque most African Americans are borne in these communities away from the larger American society that boasts of vast wealth.  Despite these separate worlds, we are more connected by human bonds than we care to imagine. A sneeze in Manhattan will lead to a cough in the Bronx.

National solidarity required against COVID-19 Corona virus is a notoriously infectious disease contagion. The intricate web of human connectedness also facilitates the rapid human-human spread of the disease.  In this regard COVID-19 has been regarded by some as the “great equalizer”, a non-respecter of persons and boundaries. Thus, the widely adopted strategies for combating the disease focus on both individual as well as societal interventions (e.g. hand hygiene versus shelter in place). Societal solidarity to these interventions is key to the prevention of transmissions.

COVID-19 like response needed for racial and economic disparities The moral imperative of human solidarity dictate that we be, “our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper”. We need each other both in adversity and in prosperity. In the words of Nelson Mandela “I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken away from me”. The same is true for the other basic human values closely connected to liberty i.e. justice and equality. Importantly, our aspirations for defeating the COVID-19 pandemic are largely predicated on our ability to cohere together to adopt interventions at both a personal level and the larger societal level.  We sink or swim together. In like manner, we must solemnly regard the urgent work of dismantling the structural inequalities that are so pervasive with firm resolve. Racial injustice is a social ill that requires us to spare no effort to eradicate, precisely because it

threatens our humanity. Paraphrasing the prophetic words of James Baldwin, until the African American is uplifted, empowered and enjoys the same liberties and pursuits that is common to the rest of America, the American dream is indeed in danger of wreckage.

Written By Sula Mazimba MD, MPH

Assistant Professor, Division of Cardiovascular Medicine.

University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University.