‘These aren’t just numbers, they are lives’: How black Americans are dying from coronavirus – and institutional racism is blocking testing

Andrew Buncombe
Mayor heads one of several US cities with large black populations that are Covid-19 hotspots: AP

A senior African American politician has denounced as “devastating” a report that black people made up up to 70 per cent of coronavirus deaths in her city.

As anecdotal reports are increasingly being backed up by data to show people of colour in the US make up a disproportionate number of those both being infected and dying from the virus, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot launched a new effort to urge people to remain at home to try and limit its spread.

“It’s devastating to see those numbers,” Ms Lightfoot said. “And knowing they’re not just numbers, they’re lives. They’re families and communities that have been shattered.”

Ms Lightfoot said Chicago could not “erase decades of health disparities in a few days or a week”.

Yet she added: “We have to impress upon people in these communities that there are things that they can do, there are tools at their disposal that they can do to help themselves.”

The comments from the mayor come amid mounting evidence that people of make up a greater proportion of people being infected, and those dying.

Research by Chicago’s WBEZ radio channel suggested that 70 per cent of coronavirus deaths in the city, which is emerging as a new hotspot, were of African American residents.

“The COVID-19 virus is killing black residents in Cook County at disproportionately high rates, according to early data analysed by WBEZ,” it said on its website. “In Chicago, 61 of the 86 recorded deaths – or 70 per cent – were black residents. Blacks make up 29 per cent of Chicago’s population.”

The report about the impact in Illinois, followed one by ProPublica last week that came to a similar conclusion after studying data from neighbouring Wisconsin.

“As of Friday morning, African Americans made up almost half of Milwaukee County’s 945 cases and 81 per cent of its 27 deaths in a county whose population is 26 per cent black,” it said. “Milwaukee is one of the few places in the United States that is tracking the racial breakdown of people who have been infected by the novel coronavirus, offering a glimpse at the disproportionate destruction it is inflicting on black communities nationwide.”

Experts say there are several reasons for this, among them the fact that because of limited access to healthcare, people of colour may have more underlying health problems that make them more vulnerable to the virus.

“No, this does not surprise me,” Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a group that works to promote the political power of women of colour, told The Independent.

“Over the last couple of decades we’ve seen conservative forces destroying the social safety net. And it’s meant black communities and brown communities and indigenous communities, have pre-existing conditions that make individuals more susceptible to the worst ravages of Covid-19,” she said.

“Those pre-existing conditions are caused by socio economic factors. You can’t shelter in place if you don’t have shelter.”

She added: “It lays bare bones what the underlying problem is, and what the solution is going forward.”

Tyler Moran, director of the Immigration Hub, a group that fights for the right of immigrants, has been campaigning to extend coronavirus testing and treatment to undocumented migrants – something currently not available.

“Everyone has pointed out the virus doesn’t know borders, it doesn’t know immigration status. And right now, it’s not only undocumented immigrants who are ineligible for coverage but also many immigrants of lawful status,” she said.

“People of colour are disproportionally not covered. They don’t have healthcare, and they’re disproportionately impacted by the virus and also by the economy and the layoffs. And so, not only are they not eligible for healthcare, but not everyone is eligible for the cash relief.”

Chicago is among several cities with large black populations that are considered hot spots for the coronavirus, including New York, Detroit, Milwaukee and New Orleans.

Figures released by Michigan health officials last week showed African Americans, who make up 14 per cent of the state’s population, made up 35 per cent of cases statewide and 40 per cent of deaths.

Additional reporting by Associated Press

Read more

When can we really expect coronavirus to end?

Everything you need to know on supermarket delivery slots

The dirty truth about washing your hands

Which countries around the world has coronavirus spread to?

Listen to the latest episode of The Independent Coronavirus Podcast