Black New Yorkers say “We can’t breathe”

“We can’t breathe” is an accurate representation of what it means to be Black in the United States in 2020 more broadly.
“We can’t breathe” is an accurate representation of what it means to be Black in the United States in 2020 more broadly.
JASON SZENES/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
“We can’t breathe” is an accurate representation of what it means to be Black in the United States in 2020 more broadly.

Black New Yorkers say “We can’t breathe”

Here’s what needs to happen to end COVID-19 racial disparities.
October 26, 2020

In recent years, the phrase “I can’t breathe” has become synonymous with Black men being suffocated by police officers – Erik Garner, Christopher Lowe, Javier Ambler, Derrick Scott, Byron Williams, John Neville, Manuel Ellis, and George Floyd – and others that we don’t know about because their deaths were not recorded on cell phones or body cams.

But “We can’t breathe” is an accurate representation of what it means to be Black in the United States in 2020 more broadly. 

In the past six months, the racial disparities that have permeated our society for more than 400 years have become even more pronounced as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the country. Although no evidence has emerged that Black people are genetically more susceptible to the virus, it has nevertheless disproportionately affected them at every step along the way. 

At the outset, Black people were much less likely to be tested for COVID-19. One early analysis by the biotech firm Rubix Life Sciences indicated that Black patients with telltale symptoms such as shortness of breath, a cough or a fever were much less likely to be given one of then-scarce COVID-19 tests than a white patient with similar symptoms. 

Even when local public health officials pushed to expand the availability of testing, media reports indicated that there was racial disparity in terms of the availability of testing. Later, numerous resources were devoted to creating drive-through testing centers in several urban centers like Miami and New York City – which, unfortunately, were of little use to Black residents who had no means to get to them. As was noted by Azhar Chougle, the executive director of Transit Alliance Miami: “The irony is that those people who don’t have cars have a higher risk of exposure and now have the least access to testing.”

As the virus continued to spread, statistics from coast to coast showed that Black Americans were accounting for a disproportionate percentage of COVID-19 fatalities. As documented in a recently-released follow-up analysis undertaken by NPR, “African Americans continue to get infected and die from COVID-19 at rates more than 1.5 times their share of the population.” 

As noted by Samantha Artiga, the director of the Disparities Policy Project at the Kaiser Family Foundation the trend is now very evident: “When you look at that continually growing body of research, the findings very consistently show that people of color are really bearing the heaviest burden of COVID-19 at every stage, from risk of exposure, to access to testing, to severity of the illness and eventually death."

Various theories have emerged as to why Black patients are much more likely to die than others who contracted the virus. Several early analyses focused on the fact that Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to suffer from a variety of underlying health issues that significantly increase a person’s vulnerability to COVID-19, including diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and obesity. 

Black people are also more likely to work in essential occupations, such as grocery store clerks or bus drivers, who have had to continue working in person, putting them at higher risk of becoming infected. The multigenerational composition of many Black households also creates a higher risk of infecting elderly family members.

Finally, even when Black patients who were diagnosed with COVID-19 were able to get treated, they tended to receive a lower quality of care than their white counterparts, as they already did – even when they have the same insurance or ability to pay

In another report that was recently published by the National Education Policy Center, Kristen Buras of Georgia State University documented how many Black neighborhoods in New Orleans were disproportionately affected by the pandemic in the same way – and for many of the same reasons – as they were by Hurricane Katrina. Buras suggests that members of the negatively affected communities must be included as policymakers in developing COVID-19 recovery plans

Due to higher rates of kidney disease, Black patients are more likely to need dialysis. Governmental agencies devoted far fewer resources to testing for COVID-19 in dialysis centers than they did in other healthcare facilities like hospitals and nursing homes. Given the higher susceptibility of dialysis patients to the coronavirus – and the higher likelihood that they will die if they become infected – it is imperative that every dialysis patient be tested each time before they are admitted for treatment. 

As several pharmaceutical companies race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, additional issues are emerging with regard to racial disparities. Many of the pharmaceutical companies developing these vaccines failed to include a sufficient number of Black people in their initial clinical trials. As a result, they have been forced to recruit more Black participants – and to extend their testing timeline to ensure that the results will be applicable to potential Black recipients of the vaccine.

Many Black Americans are still wary of being involved in such clinical trials because of previous medical experiments such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study that used 600 Black men as guinea pigs. 

Once a safe and effective vaccine is developed, two race-related issues will need to be resolved: how to convince Black people to take the vaccine – and how to distribute the vaccine in a way that will ensure they are not at the end of the line for vaccinations. 

If these two issues cannot be resolved promptly, then COVID-19 will likely become the latest form of anti-Black genocide in the U.S.

To lessen concerns about taking any of the COVID-19 vaccines that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, a panel of Black doctors from the National Medical Association  will assess the federal government’s review of each such vaccine.

When asked what would happen if the panel does not approve a vaccine that has been vetted by the FDA, National Medical Association President Leon McDougle said that Black doctors are trusted within their communities and if they don’t believe in the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, “it’s not going to move forward.”

According to a recent survey by Axios-Ipsos, less than 30% of Black respondents are likely to take a first-generation COVID-19 vaccine. That same survey indicated that 51% of whites and 56% of Hispanics would be willing to take such a vaccine.

Even if the NMA panel can convince the Black community to take a COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes available, there is no guarantee that the vaccine will be distributed fairly and equitably without regard to race or social status. Without such a system in place, the availability of the vaccine will become just the latest instance when Black Americans will be left saying, “We can’t breathe.” 

There will come a time when studying causes and analyzing data will be appropriate. This is not that time.

Instead, what the Mayor needs to do is get out of the way and let our local community leaders take the lead in making sure that our minority populations are informed by people they trust about the efficacy of whatever vaccines are developed. 

People will not take direction from public service announcements or heed the messages sent out via social media campaigns. But they will listen to the local community leaders with whom they interact on a regular basis. 

City Hall needs to issue a mandate that requires every dialysis center in New York City test every one of its patients before they are allowed inside for treatment and the city needs to supply the testing kits that will be needed to carry out that mandate.

The mayor also needs to let local community leaders come up with a distribution plan that will ensure Black New Yorkers are able to get vaccinated at the same time, and at the same rate, as other residents.

Once again, the Black community will trust its leaders to implement a distribution plan that is fair and equitable, as opposed to one that is developed by faceless bureaucrats or mayoral sycophants.

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Bertha Lewis
is a community organizer, iconic activist and the founder and president of The Black Institute (TBI), an action tank.
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