By Barney Blakeney
“The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) today announced 127 new cases of the novel coronavirus Covid-19, and five additional deaths. This brings the total number of people confirmed to have Covid-19 in South Carolina to 3,439, and those who have died to 87.”
Monday, I talked with Medical University of South Carolina health disparities program coordinator Prof. Chanita Hughes-Halbert about the disproportionate rate of death among African Americans from Covid-19. While statistics around the country cite glaring disproportions in the death rate for African Americans she’s unaware of any such specific statistics for Charleston County. In South Carolina 38 percent of those reported infected are Black. Forty-six percent of Covid-19 deaths in South Carolina are African American. South Carolina’s Black population is about 27 percent, she said.
The disproportionate rate of death for Blacks in some other communities is more alarming. African-Americans make up 72 percent of those who have succumbed to the virus in Chicago where Black residents make up a little less than a third of the population. And in Louisiana about 70 percent of the people who have died are African-American though only a third of the state’s population is Black.
Health experts say there’s a reason for the disparities – the racial disparities in coronavirus cases and deaths reflect what happens when a viral pandemic is layered on top of entrenched inequalities. Blacks already are sick and more likely to have existing health conditions that could make us more vulnerable in any outbreak. Higher rates of chronic disease and other social deprivations lead to disparities that can be manifested in pandemics like Covid, Hughes-Halbert said.
But while we’re trying to get Black folks to practice social distancing and other behavior to slow the spread of the virus, this is an important time to ask if we ever will do what it takes to eliminate the health disparities that put Blacks at risk in the first place. We’re not having those conversations.
Last week, South Carolina legislators went to Columbia for an emergency session to discuss efforts to mitigate Covid and stuck themselves in debate over the economic viability of Santee Cooper Electric Co-op. Black legislators let them get away with it!
Black people are dying all over the place and our political leaders never forced the legislature’s hand to address the disproportionate rate of death among African Americans as a consequence of Covid.
Even as Black workers face the very real challenges of unemployment in an overshadowing economic environment of uncertain survival for small Black-owned businesses, our leadership has not brought the issues of life after Covid to the forefront. I keep hearing Black folks console themselves saying “We’ve been here before and survived.”
Hughes-Halbert described the Covid pandemic in America as a natural experiment. As a health professional she asked are we going to come out of this with our focus on eliminating the health disparities that put Black people at risk. That question should be asked across the board in reference to our social and economic wellbeing also.
Looking through the tons of notes to myself I have scribbled on pieces of paper all over my desk, I saw one I wrote after hearing former Maryland Governor and presidential candidate Martin O’Malley make the statement that efforts to improve Black communities fail because Black leadership is not committed to doing the work it takes. Disregarding that a white boy made the statement, I asked myself was it true. Hell, I’ve been saying that for years!
I don’t know whether Black leadership is unwilling or unable to do the work it takes to move Black communities progressively forward, but this Covid pandemic will usher in a new world order. Black folks and their leadership must be able to meet its requirements. But we’re not even talking about what happens after this. That conversation has to begin now – better late than never!