United States: The virus is colour blind, humans are not

April 14, 2020
Soldiers with the Montana National Guard perform a COVID-19 screening test. Photo: Brandy Burke

The coronavirus is colour blind. It strikes whites, Blacks, Latinos, indigenous people, Asians and rich, poor. So, why the higher number of cases and deaths for African Americans? Structural inequality and racism.

Permanent, colour-based inequality is based on a system of white supremacy that predates the 1776 Revolutionary War.

The colonies under English rule considered Africans, enslaved and “free”, as inferior to whites. After independence, the ideology of white supremacy remained and continues to the present day.

That original crime is why the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic kills African Americans at more than twice the rate as whites. The invisible enemy does not discriminate, only humans do.

Many whites in the US are surprised by a colour-blind disease. They had always assumed that Blacks dying from other viruses and diseases was their own fault. “It is them, not us.” Today, the fear is that the high death rates for African Americans could be a signal for greater deaths for them.

African Americans with underlying health conditions face permanent inequalities in their daily lives (a structural, racial deficit), suffer more and die in greater numbers than whites.

The data

Statistics from a selection of states at the time of writing (April 12) show this life gap.

In Illinois, Blacks make up 15% of the state’s population, whites 77%. Deaths: 42% Black, 36% white.

In Michigan, Blacks are 14% of state’s population but make up 40% of deaths (which are heavily concentrated in the metro area of Detroit). Whites are 78.5% of the population.

In Mississippi, Blacks are 38% of state’s population, but make up 72% of deaths.

In Louisiana, Blacks are 33% of the population, but 70.5% of deaths.

In South Carolina, Blacks are 27% of the population, but 46% of deaths.

In New York City, the epicenter of the US coronavirus pandemic, Blacks and Hispanics die at twice the rate of whites, who are 46% of the population. Many people who died at home and were not taken to hospital were not counted in the COVID-19 death toll. There were not enough tests to check.

Some of this racial disparity is tied to the specific types of jobs that Black men and women can get, such as in transit, garbage collection, postal delivery, home care and as nurses’ aides in public health.

Internet access and computers are also less plentiful in low-income homes. Diabetes and hypertension is prevalent in Black communities.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention charted the racial gap, in all walks of life, for Blacks and whites before the COVID-19 virus. It found:

• Life expectancy is 74 years for Blacks and 79 years for whites.

• The infant mortality rate before 1 year of age, per 1000 births, is 11.5 for Blacks and 6.17 for whites.

• Obesity is almost twice as high for Blacks than whites across all age groups. For Blacks aged 20–39 years, it is 46% and for whites 26%.

• Hypertension is a major risk factor for heart disease, heart attack and stroke. About 75% of Blacks develop high blood pressure, compared to just 55% of white men and 40% of white women.

Despite fair housing laws, Blacks continue to be excluded from housing loans (or at much higher mortgage rates) and programs through redlining [Ed: A practice originating in the 1930s, where lenders racially profiled certain neighbourhoods as “high-risk”] and discrimination.

After the US Civil War (1861–65) freed Blacks were denied land and property, and before and after the Second World War, new housing programs did not grant favourable loans to Blacks, even though many served in the military.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment is twice as high for African Americans as it is for whites — about 6.3% in 2018 for Blacks and 3.3% for whites. This data does not include those who stopped looking for jobs or those working part-time, or as so-called “independent contractors” such as Uber drivers.

Detroit story

As Benjamin Wallace-Wells observed in “Inequality intensifies coronavirus crisis in Detroit”, published in The New Yorker on April 7: “We are just beginning to see demographic data on those who’ve died of COVID-19, but African-American communities around the country may be especially vulnerable.

“Black Americans have increased rates of high blood pressure and diabetes, conditions which seem over represented in COVID-19 patients who grow critically sick, and in pockets of concentrated poverty, those rates can be higher still.

“In Detroit, where 79% of the population is Black and 36% is below the poverty line, the diabetes rate is roughly twice the national average. South-eastern Michigan has become a national epicenter of the outbreak, and though African Americans are just 14% of the state’s population, they represent 41% of its COVID-19 victims.

“In Detroit, the pandemic is escalating in intensity, and poverty and poor health may be changing its shape.”

Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans have never received fair and equal treatment. The US is the only developed country in the world where there is no universal health care. The racial gap, however, has prevented united action even though most people now support a single payer healthcare system.

The ideology of white supremacy is so engrained that solidarity between whites and others has been difficult to forge. Racial inequality is exacerbated under a system that puts business and profits first. Yet the need for health solidarity is changing that.

Inequality spreads COVID-19

The same is true for inequality around the world. Racial conflicts have undermined development and anti-capitalist struggles, including in Africa and Latin America.

“Estimates indicate that COVID-19 could cost the world more than $10 trillion,” wrote Faheem Ahmed, Na’eem Ahmed, Christopher Pissarides and Joseph Stiglitz in the British medical publication, The Lancet on April 2.

“Although considerable uncertainty exists with regard to the reach of the virus and the efficacy of the policy response. For each percentage point reduction in the global economy, more than 10 million people are plunged into poverty worldwide.

“Considering that the poorest populations are more likely to have chronic conditions, this puts them at higher risk of COVID-19-associated mortality.

“Since the pandemic has perpetuated an economic crisis, unemployment rates will rise substantially and weakened welfare safety nets further threaten health and social insecurity.”

In other words, the peoples in less developed regions such as Africa, with weak health systems and safety nets, will be hit the hardest.

Opportunity for united action

An opportunity, nevertheless, exists today. To close the inequality gap is possible, as more working-class people and farmers see the virus as colour blind.

Many more whites, who had ignored racism, now express some solidarity to minorities dying at higher numbers.

When 17 million Americans lose their jobs in three weeks and lose their employer-based health insurance, the demand for a “Medicare for all” health care system seems logical.

The US does not pay for sick leave or provide other basic social services, as other wealthy countries do. More whites and most African Americans are asking, “Why not?”

As the US Federal Reserve prints trillions of dollars to save the economy, what were once seen as “socialist” demands seem more and more realistic.

How to win is also clearer: mass action by working people for fundamental changes to the system that puts profits before health.

What the invisible enemy is showing is that unity is possible and the essential driver of the economy is not capital, but labour.

The demand for nationalisation of the healthcare and drug industries for the public good is more realistic than ever. A new radical leadership is possible.

[Malik Miah lives in northern California, near San Francisco. Miah is a retired aviation mechanic, union and anti-racist activist and advisory editor of Against the Current.]

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