COVID-19 has taken a disproportionate toll on the African-American community, according to experts who spoke at a webinar on Friday, April 17.
The panel — held via Zoom — was hosted by the NYU School of Global Public Health. Faculty Members of the school discussed how the pandemic affects the African American community, covering issues arising from racial profiling, how the lingering healthcare deficit for African Americans affects their response to coronavirus and the toll being an essential worker takes on an individual’s risk to exposure.
To demonstrate the disproportionate effect of coronavirus on the African American community, panelists cited a Reuters report utilizing data collected from several states across the United States, which found that African-Americans are far more likely to die from the COVID-19 than white Americans.
The report points to Michigan and Illinois where the African American community makes up only 14% and 14.6% of the states’ respective populations but comprises 40% of coronavirus-related deaths each.
The conversation began with a discussion on how the pandemic is more likely to affect people with preexisting conditions such as asthma, diabetes and hypertension, which African-Americans are statistically more likely to have.
African Americans are also more likely to hold jobs that cannot be done remotely. From 2017 to 2018 only 19.7 percent of African American workers said they were able to telecommute compared to 29.9 percent of white workers. A disproportionate number of essential workers are also African American, leaving them more vulnerable to being exposed to coronavirus. The webinar discussed the task of ensuring the safety of essential workers. Dr. Melody Goodman, Associate Dean for Research commented on the themes coronavirus exposes.
“What we are seeing in COVID is really racism in our country and the main public is really surprised by the way this is playing out,” Goodman said.
Dr. Melody Goodman — whose research focuses primarily on social risk factors that continue to inflame disparities among underserved communities in urban areas — said that many African-Americans being essential workers puts them at a higher risk of incidence and mortality due to the coronavirus, putting their families and other people they come in contact with at greater risk.
North Carolina Congresswoman Alma Adams urged that the ensuing pandemic is not a partisan issue.
“It is a life or death issue, so it does not matter if you are a Democrat, a Republican or you claim no party affiliation,” she said. “There is a saying in our community that when White America catches a cold, Black America catches pneumonia, so that has been true with this virus.”
The webinar also discussed African American men being hesitant to comply with the CDC recommendation to wear facemasks in fear of being racially profiled by police officers.
Dr. Emmanuel Peprah, a panelist and Director of Implementation Science for Global Health, highlighted that since officials are currently 12 to 18 months away from developing a vaccine to prevent the spread of this virus, it is essential to address this issue so as to not discourage members of the African-American community from protecting themselves.
“We have to really address this in a very culturally sensitive way to make sure that African-Americans are not, unfortunately, having to have higher rates of infections, because they cannot protect themselves from doing the essential thing that anyone can do, which is wearing masks,” he said.
Touching on the way geographical location affects the pandemic, panelists spoke about population density in places like New York, where social distancing presents a greater challenge. Queens — which is currently the epicenter of the pandemic within New York — has been hardest hit in predominantly African American and Latinx neighborhoods.
“The information we are giving to the general public does not fit every specific population and as a black man am I more concerned about COVID or being shot by the police?” Goodman asked. “Is that a risk judgement that we want people in our community to have to make when they are dealing with the pandemic? I do think we really have to think about the way place impacts health.”
After the panelists’ discussion, the floor was given to audience members for the latter half of the session.
Danielle Ompad, a GPH professor who was in attendance, asked about the role that historically Black colleges and universities can play in addressing the pandemic. In response, Peprah pointed to the caliber for these colleges and universities to fill what she calls the education void.
“There has been a lot of rumors and misinformation, particularly in the African-American community about COVID, particularly in communities where government is not a trusted resource,” she said. “For people who do not trust the government, it would be nice to have some trusted sources give them really reliable information in real time and I know that is hard with information changing but I do think the messenger is as important as the message.”
Dr. Nicole Davis, also among the audience members, asked the panel to share their thoughts and concerns about schools reopening as part of President Trump’s re-entry plan.
“We have under-tested, we do not even really know the number of individuals that are positive,” Peprah said. “We need to ramp up the testing capabilities of this country to be able to make good, sound policy decisions.”
Adams agreed with Peprah, stating that individuals will need to commit to coronavirus precautions.
“I am not putting a lot of confidence in all the stuff [that] I hear coming out of the White House,” Congresswoman Adams added. “We also have to think about how children interact with each other, do you really think they are going to walk six feet apart and not hug … it is just not going to happen,” the Congresswoman said.
A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 2020, e-print issue. Email Aarushi Sharma at [email protected]