Commentary: The system is killing us: Why African Americans face a shockingly higher COVID-19 death rate

Tribune Content Agency

As our nation continues struggling to address the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing a shocking trend in deaths among African Americans.

According to reporting from ProPublica on April 3, African Americans accounted for just 15% of Americans in the 2010 census but represent 35% of COVID-19 diagnoses and 40% of COVID-19 deaths. This dataset is based on just a handful of states and occurred weeks before the peak, meaning the numbers have likely gotten worse.

In the communities reporting demographic data, we see the harsh reality of these statistics as human lives.

African Americans made up just 23% of Cook County residents, but account for more than half of the county’s deaths and nearly 70% of Chicago’s deaths. In terms of real lives lost, 107 of the 180 Chicagoans who have died were African American. Similar numbers are coming out of New Orleans, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Charlotte, N.C.

As we work to protect the immediate health and safety of American families, we need the best possible data, especially demographic data, to target resources, establish appropriate policies and better prepare for the future.

While news outlets are finally paying attention to disproportionate health impact on African Americans, these numbers are not shocking to experts who have studied our nation’s health care inequities.

This pandemic did not create these health disparities; it merely highlighted centuries of health disparities and inequities that have negatively impacted African Americans.

COVID-19 is stressing an already broken system. Our system’s massive gaps in access and services that prevent too many African Americans from living longer, healthier lives, are being widened to a shocking level.

Recent years of bad policies have only compounded these disparities. For nearly a decade, congressional Republicans were almost exclusively focused on repealing the most expansive health care access legislation in a generation, the Affordable Care Act. They attacked funding for community health centers and other community health resources, which play a critical role in testing, diagnosing and treating diseases.

To be crystal clear: many deaths from this pandemic and the shocking disparity facing African Americans are the direct result of systemic disinvestment and access reduction pushed by congressional Republicans.

When it comes to addressing and managing a pandemic, we need a strong system in place before the virus arrives. One cannot build a strong system under pandemic conditions. It must be built beforehand.

Unfortunately, we cannot go back in time and better prepare. We need to act based on the reality of the moment and the best possible data.

Looking at the facts, it is clear that our immediate response must be to scramble for all available resources for the most impacted communities.

To do this effectively, we require good data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Members of Congress continue demanding this information with no response from the Trump administration.

Not only will this data help us make better decisions now, it will also help us prepare to prevent and combat future pandemics, which are predicted to become more common thanks to climate change and globalization.

Once we enter the recovery phase, we need to use this data to see what happened, why and if resources were shifted away from communities by the Trump administration.

But most importantly, we need to use this experience to start preparing for the next pandemic. While COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted African Americans, like so many past public health crises, we can work to ensure that COVID-19 is the last pandemic with such shocking disparities.



Rep. Robin Kelly represents Chicagoland in Congress and chairs the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust. Dr. Ebony J. Hilton, M.D., is the medical director of Goodstock Consulting.


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