“When America Catches the Flu, Black People Die”

By Jamie R. Riley

Two things have always been a part of my life: the presence of chronic health issues and systemic racism. Whether it is me, a family member, or friend, those two realities have always been present (in our lives) and were never mutually exclusive. Even as I lead a healthy physical lifestyle, I still navigate systemically oppressive environments daily, hence I suffer from the same generational health issue as many other Black people: hypertension. 

As a community, Black people only obtained “legalized access and opportunity” 56 years ago with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I was born in 1981, only one generation removed from this reality. Although our country has made some progress since then, the fact remains that Black people are running a race that was never meant for us to compete in. That’s why when national news broke about the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus within the Black community, I was disheartened, but not surprised.

Similar to the devastation in of the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina, the coronavirus pandemic is ravaging Black communities—breaking apart families, taking lives, collapsing legacies, and dismantling hope. States everywhere have reported alarming disproportionate rates of new infections and COVID-related deaths within Black communities. In Louisiana, Black people make up 32 percent of the population yet account for over 57 percent of COVID-related deaths, and in Michigan, Black people make up 14 percent of the total population, but 40 percent of those who have died from the virus are Black. 

This public health crisis has only magnified the underlying pervasiveness of racism and disenfranchisement and will have long-lasting negative effects that will span generations, unless we center the very specific needs of Black people and families in the federal response and state implementation. Given this reality, we must take 10 key steps:

  • Expand Medicaid in all states to maximize access to affordable, comprehensive health coverage. By doing this, we will reach regions with higher rates of uninsured Black residents and people with low incomes who are uninsured because of states that have refused to expand Medicaid.
  • Provide greater access to coronavirus testing for Black residents in rural and urban communities 
  • Meet the resource needs of hospitals, community health centers, and other medical facilities that serve greater percentages of Black patients. 
  • Prioritize the distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) within Black neighborhoods, and to employers and industries that traditionally hire a large percentage of Black people as “essential workers.”                
  • Provide at least $5 billion to historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions to offer emergency aid to students, maintain operations, keep college tuition and college costs affordable, and promote student success.        
  • Improve programs that meet basic needs by expanding nutrition benefits and providing higher federal contributions to Medicaid costs until the economy has recovered. We should also lift arbitrary restrictions on benefits, such as work reporting requirements and denial of access to people with previous histories of justice system involvement. 
  • Fund a large-scale subsidized jobs program for low-income Black communities impacted by COVID-19.
  • Create reemployment and training set-asides for immediate services to Black workers in low-wage jobs, youth and adults, immigrants, and individuals impacted by the justice system.
  • Invest at least $50 billion in the child care system to support Black “essential workers” during the crisis and people working in the caregiving sector, which disproportionately employs women of color. 
  • Provide economic and health relief so Black immigrants have access to critical health care and economic relief regardless of immigration status, and that those with Temporary Protected Status, Deferred Enforced Departure, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) are able to automatically extend work authorizations.

In addition to the burden of navigating a history of racial disenfranchisement, the Black community is now faced with evaluating how to move forward as it deals with the drastic and dismantling impact of COVID-19. This pandemic should serve as a call to action for increased awareness and a greater commitment to centering the lived experiences and needs of communities of color when developing and implementing strategies and policies that prioritize health and economic security for everyone.