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Michigan’s Black Communities Devastated by the Coronavirus

The pandemic sheds light on the disproportionately high death rate among blacks. In Detroit, nearly 80 percent of the population is black, but the city has the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths: 922 deaths.

Jamon Jordan sits outside of his home in Detroit
Jamon Jordan sits outside of his home in Detroit, Friday, April 24, 2020. Jordan could not mourn his mother, Jacquelynne Jordan, in the traditional way. At Jacquelynne Jordan's memorial in early April, there were just seven people. No hugs. No traditional dinner where family members could gather to honor the 66-year-old matriarch's memory after she died from the new coronavirus.
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
(TNS) -- Tamara Liberty Smith of Detroit says her social media feed reflects the deadly impact of the coronavirus in Michigan’s largest city, one that also has the most black residents.

“I’ve never experienced anything in my life where my social media timeline looks like an obituary,” said Smith, a lifelong Detroiter who ran a failed bid for Detroit City Council in 2017. “You cannot scroll ... not knowing someone who has been attacked by the virus or who has experienced death from the virus.”

The pandemic has shed light on the disproportionately high number of deaths in the black community, especially in Detroit where nearly 80 percent of the population is black. Detroit has seen the highest number of cases and deaths due to coronavirus, with 922 deaths as of Sunday.

Statewide, 32 percent of all confirmed coronavirus cases in Michigan involved black patients, yet they make up about 13.6 percent of the state’s 10 million people. More than 40 percent of all coronavirus deaths in the state are African Americans.

Underlying health issues within the black community, poverty that restricts access to medical care, crowded living situations and a general lack of trust in the health system are some of the theories put forth for the high rate of COVID-19 among people who are black.

Smith lives in west Detroit on the border of the 48235 ZIP code, an area hardest hit by the virus hit, based on city health data.

She called it “baffling” that Detroit has been impacted so harshly, since “a lot of the Detroiters are not travelers; they’re stationary.”

“From my perception, this was brought into our city and the people are contracting it,” she said. "How? That part I’m still wondering (about) ... A lot of Detroiters don’t even leave the city, let along the country, and the virus is running rampant.

Other than some youth who feel impervious to the virus, Smith said most people she knows are practicing social distancing and isolation in line with the governor’s orders.

State Rep. Tyrone Carter, a coronavirus survivor, points across a busy street from his front porch to a field on the outskirts of Detroit.

“There used to be a hospital there,” he says.

Carter said a lack of access to quality, affordable health care in the black community is one of many reasons the coronavirus has killed a disproportionately high number of black people in Michigan and Detroit.

“We always have known this in the black community,” he said. “Now it’s almost like the world knows it."

Leaders in Detroit and throughout Michigan are coming together to address racial inequalities and environmental factors that led the coronavirus to kill so many black people.

“Shame on us if we come out of this and allow the same things to go forward,” Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said during a recent online town hall to discuss the impact of the coronavirus in the community.

Hiram E. Jackson, the publisher of the Detroit-based Michigan Chronicle, a publication focused on black issues, said “this crisis was tailor made for devastation in the black community as we are structured now.”

“Most of us live in urban environments where the population is dense,” he said. “Many of us depend on buses for mass transit in Detroit; 35% of the residents don’t have cars.”

Outside a Detroit grocery store Dr. Blandina Rose, a Detroit resident since 1972, said it may also have to do with the types of jobs many black residents have.

“We see that. We also see that many people are in the service fields, they’ve got to be out on the front lines, and so they get a lot of people that may be infected that come along and infect them,” Rose said. “What it really does is point out the inequities in this society that weren’t solved before the pandemic, and so we’re victims of inequities once again.”

The racial disparity of the coronavirus cases is evident in county health data across Michigan.

In Washtenaw County, 48% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients as of April 1 were black, even though they only make up 12% of the county’s residents. The latest county figures show 24% of the deaths and 37% of the total confirmed cases involve black patients.

“We know viruses do not discriminate based on location, race, ethnicity, or national origin,” said Washtenaw County Health Officer Jimena Loveluck. “However, viruses like COVID-19 can highlight health disparities that are deeply rooted in our society.”

Of the 229 Kalamazoo County residents who had tested positive as of Friday, 79 were black, making up 34.5% of the county’s total confirmed cases. Black residents make up less than 12% of the county’s total population.

In Kent County, among 815 residents who tested positive as of Friday, about 163, or 20%, were black. Blacks residents make up about 10% of the county’s population.

One exception to the statewide racial disparity is Saginaw, where black people make up 19% of the population and only 17% of the deaths. As of this week, more than 500 tests being tracked by the Saginaw County Health Department were still pending and not factored into death statistics, which are based on less than 1,300 tests.

The racial disparity also holds true on the national level, where black people are about 13% of the population and account for 33% of coronavirus cases, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC only has race data for about 36% of the nation’s 620,000 confirmed cases.

While white residents make up nearly 80 percent of Michigan’s population, they account for about 31% of the positive cases and 44% of the deaths.

Kenisa Barkai has worked as a nurse in Detroit for the last decade.

“Unfortunately, a lot of these patients, they don’t have access to health care, they don’t have access to transportation, they don’t have access to, you know, a lot of things,” she said. “A lot of times they want to wait to make sure they’re not able to care for themselves at home before they take their self to the hospital.”

That reluctance to go to the hospital or doctors, she said, means they’re often in much worse shape when the first medical intervention occurs. Whereas people with good insurance and doctors are much more apt to reach out for help as soon as they develop symptoms of an illness.

“Also, they may not have the education to manage their ... diabetes or high blood pressure, or the education on how to treat things such as diet,” Barkai said. “Coming into the hospital may be the only chance they have at getting some of that. Once they leave the hospital, they’re kind of left on their own, if they don’t follow up with a primary physician, which most of them don’t even have.”

This is the result of 400 years of systemic racism, according to Dr. Ijeoma Opara, who teaches global health and health equity at Wayne State University in Detroit.

She said non-biological environmental factors, “the conditions in which we live, work, play, go to school and die,” account for up to 80% of our heath.

While health professionals attribute the coronavirus’s deadliness in the black community to underlying health issues, such as hypertension, heart or kidney disease or obesity, Opara said these ailments stem from “structural racism that leaves a group of people at odds with obtaining health and wealth.”

The first step to solving it, she said, is acknowledging it.

“African Americans have a high degree of diabetes and hypertension,” Opara said. “Ok, Why? because they eat a certain way? No, that’s not the reason. Even the way they eat is influenced by food choices made available to them historically.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on April 20 issued an executive order formalizing a Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, which is chaired by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, a black man from Detroit.

The task force includes politicians, academics, nonprofit leaders, clergy, medical professionals, a union official, a Native American and the Detroit public schools superintendent.

They’ve been asked to increase coronavirus reporting transparency in regard to race and ethnicity, increase access to health care for minorities, decrease bias in testing and treatment and improve quality of life issues that contribute to greater number of black deaths.

Gilchrist said Michigan is one of the first states, and remains one of the the few, that is reporting race along with its coronavirus data. That’s important, he said, because it’s allowed leaders to clearly see the problem and take quick action.

Task force member Denise Brooks-Williams, the CEO and vice president of Henry Ford Health System locations in Oakland and Macomb counties, said the group has met four times and is still collecting information on the disparity.

Action already has been taken, she said, noting Wayne State University is conducting coronavirus testing around Detroit, especially among residents who’d likely not get tested otherwise.

“There’s a mobile unit going into vulnerable communities,” Brooks-Williams said. “Obviously they would be seeking to support homeless populations that don’t have cars and can’t go to drive-up testing.

" ... We now have data that helps us to understand top ZIP codes for coronavirus rates, and so they can go into those ZIP codes, as well."

Dr. Matt Longjohn, a doctor and former national health officer for the YMCA who narrowly lost to U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, in the 2018 congressional race, said the death disparity was “entirely predictable.”

He’s worked on addressing chronic diseases “fueled by health inequalities” for 20 years.

While race has been the focus of the coronavirus disparity, it isn’t the only indicator of risk, he said.

“You can look in the data and see that African Americans are getting sick and dying at a higher rate ... The same is true of nursing home patients,” Longjohn said. “Inequities in care in long-term care facilities are an example of where the data are showing clearly that those who maybe had fewer resources ... ended up in facilities where maybe safety and hygiene maybe hadn’t been something that could fit into the business model.”

Longjohn believes the fallout of the coronavirus epidemic will have effects lasting upwards of five years.

“I think it’s vitally important that we have a task force like this,” he said. " ... History shows us, that if we don’t make this kind of concerted effort, we will be leaving all kinds of marginalized populations behind in our recovery.

"It gives me hope that we have this task force coming on line early.


In addition to washing hands regularly and not touching your face, officials recommend practicing social distancing, assuming anyone may be carrying the virus.

Health officials say you should be staying at least 6 feet away from others and working from home, if possible.

Carry hand sanitizer with you, and use disinfecting wipes or disinfecting spray cleaners on frequently-touched surfaces in your home (door handles, faucets, countertops) and when you go into places like stores.


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