One of the more disturbing aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the disproportionately high level of infections and fatalities among African Americans. According to preliminary data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30% of COVID-19 patients are African-American, even though this demographic is approximately only 13% of the national population.
Data on COVID-19 cases by race is incomplete — racial information is missing from three-quarters of the patients in the CDC database and half of the states do not track cases along racial identification lines — but the evidence that is available confirms the racial disparities within the pandemic.
An Associated Press analysis of state and local data determined one-third of all U.S. fatalities from COVID-19 were African-Americans, while Illinois and Michigan each reported one-third of COVID-19 cases and roughly 40% of pandemic deaths involved African-Americans, even though African-Americans accounted for only 15% and 14% of their respective populations.
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, has been a prominent voice in calling attention to COVID-19’s impact on the African-American community. In an exclusive interview, Business Journal Senior Enterprise Editor Phil Hall spoke with Morial about the ongoing crisis and what could be done to address this growing tragedy.
The data that is available on the racial disparity in COVID-19 infections and fatalities is appalling. What is the underlying cause of this problem?
“This has everything to do with what we call pre-existing conditions. Diabetes, hypertension, obesity and asthma are more predominant among African-Americans, which makes it harder to fight off the virus. It’s important for people to understand this virus is affecting everyone, not just black or brown people — but there is a disproportionality. I saw a data analysis that looked at some geographic areas where about 21% of the population is black and Latino. And they found that 32% of deaths were black and Latino.
“We need a lot more data on all of the elements related to this. What’s important now is you have to make sure that testing is available universally and not limited because of ZIP Code or location. And we’ve got to close the gaps in the health insurance system.”
Have you been in touch with the federal authorities, either in the White House or in the Congress regarding this situation?
“We talked to members of Congress about this particular issue because the data of the disparities. I spend most of my time trying to generate public attention. Quite candidly, I think that public attention is what politicians pay attention to — that’s when the president made a comment about it, and the Surgeon General said he was going to focus on a strategy. Right now, most of the focus on issues is at the local level.”
A great number of our health care heroes and frontline workers come from the African-American and Latino communities. However, aren’t these fine people also at greatest risk of the exposure?
“And for many other professions which are low wage workers, particularly in the health care field. If you think of health care, you need to add on the maintenance assistants and nurses — in many instances, they are disproportionately black, Latino, Asian, South Asian doing those jobs. A friend of mine shared with me yesterday that several of her friends had become infected with the virus — all of them were workers in nursing homes or hospices.
There are studies that indicate that in 90% of the professions that are considered essential, in many of them African-Americans are disproportionately represented.”