My 88-year-old aunt lives in Louisiana, one of the hot spots for the coronavirus. Global and national reports reveal COVID-19 has struck victims as young as seven-months-old, but older Americans remain at greater risk. My cousins and I have been adamant that my aunt stays inside. Thankfully, she is not at all tempted to do otherwise. Louisiana has the third highest infection rate in the country, with more than 650 deaths, a figure I fear will be greatly outdated by the time you are hearing me say this.
And last week, Louisiana Governor John bell Edwards announced another set of grim numbers he described as “disturbing.” African Americans represented 70 percent of Louisiana’s total COVID 19 related deaths. His announcement followed a comprehensive story by the independent non-profit newsroom ProPublica, which confirmed the same high rates of death in African- Americans in Illinois, North Carolina and Michigan. In Michigan, for example, African Americans represent only 14 percent of the population, but 40 percent of the deaths.
Harvard University’s Dr. Cecil Webster said given the documented health and nutrition inequities, it shouldn’t be a surprise that African Americans are hardest hit by the coronavirus. And Dr. Webster told WGBH's TV program Basic Black that to figure out how a new virus operates: “We need to understand how the disease affects different populations”
But it will be harder to understand unless and until states commit to collecting racial information on each case of COVID-19. Right now, Michigan, Illinois and North Carolina are just a few of the places where virus data collection automatically includes the race of the infected or deceased. Until last week, only a third of the reported COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts included racial demographic data, which the state’s Health and Human Services Secretary admitted was “far too incomplete.”
But Secretary Mary Lou Sudders has asked labs processing COVID-19 tests to include that information going forward. And she plans to report the numbers in the public daily updates on the spread of the disease.
I’ve heard comments questioning the need to note the race of coronavirus victims. “It’s not about race” they say, “COVID 19 infects everyone.” But it’s not that simple. Communities of color tend to be densely populated tough for effective physical distancing. That, coupled with lack of access to health care resources, means many people of color have a legacy of underlying medical conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Conditions that weaken immune systems, leaving them more vulnerable to coronavirus infections.
And one more thing — those essential workers? The ones driving the buses, cleaning the buildings and packing the groceries? Many of them are people of color. And they are going to work every day.
Massachusetts’ Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley are among Democratic lawmakers who have petitioned Health and Human Services Director Alex Azar to include immediately the racial designations for COVID-19 victims. But, just like racism, this is not solely a problem for people of color. Everybody’s health depends on stopping the spread of the virus in all groups. In this health crisis, information could be a matter of life and death.