Race remains a factor, even in a pandemic

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 10, 2020 7:39 AM CT | Published: April 09, 2020 9:13 PM CT
Otis Sanford
Daily Memphian

Otis Sanford

Otis Sanford is professor emeritus of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Memphis and political commentator for WATN-TV ABC24 News. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter @otissanford.

There is no tiptoeing around it. The coronavirus outbreak, that has brought life as we know it to a virtual standstill, is now a defining issue of race.

Some will not want to hear that, and I get it. Why bring up race when we all are suffering through an unprecedented pandemic, the likes of which this country has not seen in 102 years?

When we all are being told to stay home, and leave only for absolute essentials such as food and medicines. To go alone, wear a mask and keep our distance from others when we do venture out.

Why talk about race now when the virus itself and job losses are impacting us across the board?

I get all that. But the data that is just now being collected is telling a horrendous story about the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on African Americans. We are catching it at a much higher rate than other racial groups and dying from it at rates even higher than that.

Equally alarming is the fact that health officials and political leaders didn’t think early on that it was important to keep track of the spread and mortality rate based on race.

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In Memphis and Shelby County, for example, health department officials, school administrators and elected leaders have done a commendable job trying to stay ahead of the outbreak by shutting down schools and businesses, closing parks and issuing emergency stay-at-home orders. Our local leaders were much more proactive than Tennessee’s governor, who has been leading from behind all along. It’s why I believe Shelby’s number of cases has not spiraled out of control.

But even in the Bluff City, the foresight apparently wasn’t there to collect and disperse real-time information on the racial breakdown of coronavirus cases as they were occurring. Only after national news media organizations, such as ProPublica and The Washington Post, started reporting on the racial disparities with cases, did officials rush to address the issue.

Alisa Haushalter, director of the Shelby County Health Department, acknowledged as much during the local task force’s daily media briefing April 7. “Unfortunately, much of our race data has been missing for a variety of reasons. That’s one of the pieces of data that’s not necessarily on the report,” she said before assuring the public the information is now being collected.

The following day, health department officials announced that Shelby County, which has a black population of about 53%, indeed has a disproportionately higher rate of COVID-19 cases among African Americans.

The sample size at that time was still small, about 30% of all confirmed cases. But it showed that black residents made up 68% of the cases, and 71% of deaths. And as the sample size increases, there is no reason to expect that the disparity will decrease.

The findings mirror what’s happening in other large, racially diverse cities, including Chicago, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Detroit and Philadelphia.

So the automatic question is, why is this happening? The answers are simple in their complexity. We know that longstanding health disparities between black and white Americans mean black people are more at risk for negative outcomes from a pandemic that white people.

The life expectancy of black men has long been about four years less than that of white men because of a variety of health, economic, environmental and lifestyle factors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Add in the issues of poverty, which include everything from lower educational achievement to food deserts in many black neighborhoods, and the disparities around who suffers the most from COVID-19 come into focus.

Then there is the issue of employment. Other than healthcare workers and first responders, many of the frontline employees, who must work while the rest of us abide by safer-at-home orders, are people of color. They are your bus drivers, grocery clerks and delivery people.

And of course, there is the issue of coronavirus testing. Memphis and Shelby County leaders, working with various healthcare agencies, have done a credible job expanding testing across the city. But the fact that the Trump administration was woefully slow in mobilizing a coordinated battle plan against the virus means even the most aggressive measures locally are merely playing catch-up.

All that, along with apathy and perhaps a degree of defiance mostly by younger black people, explains why this virus is attacking African Americans at a greater rate. But I believe the biggest cause, without question, is our political attitude around access to healthcare in this country.

It’s why Families USA, a Washington-based nonpartisan healthcare advocacy organization, was quick to criticize the Trump Administration for refusing to reopen enrollment for the Affordable Care Act as the coronavirus was spreading.

“This shows that the administration is not all in when it comes to fighting this deadly virus,” the organization said in a statement March 31. “Millions of people are losing their jobs — which often results in them becoming uninsured. It is essential that they promptly get health insurance; otherwise, they will hesitate to come forward and seek care when they get sick — which slows the detection of disease and spreads the already rampant epidemic.”

Unfortunately, that has been the case all along of millions of African Americans — inadequate access to decent healthcare which equates to a reluctance to attend to potential serious ailments. Health officials agree that African Americans are not more susceptible than others to getting the virus. But they are more likely to have worse outcomes when they do get it.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has emerged as the most reasonable medical voice during the coronavirus crisis, deserves credit for honestly addressing the health disparity issue from the White House podium on April 7.

“I couldn’t help sitting there reflecting about sometimes when you’re in the middle of a crisis like we are now with the coronavirus, it really does ... ultimately shine a very bright light on some of the real weaknesses and foibles in our society,” he said.

“Health disparities have always existed for the African American community,” Fauci said, referencing diabetes, hypertension, obesity and asthma — all of which are disproportionately higher among black people.

“But with the crisis, it’s shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is. When all this is over ... and we will get rid of coronavirus, there will still be health disparities which we do need to address in the African American community.”

So yes, this crisis is now as much about race as anything else. Black Americans must demand a better response on healthcare. And we can only hope that our politicians and policymakers have the courage to address those disparities.

Because if a rampaging pandemic won’t force a change, nothing will.


coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic


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