Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) spoke with a panel of experts Tuesday about the disproportionate effect of coronavirus on Black Americans, which is becoming more apparent as areas hit hard by the pandemic begin to release racial data on confirmed cases and deaths.
The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate held a livestream discussion with his national press secretary, Briahna Joy Gray, as well as with surrogates Dr. Victoria Dooley, Darrick Hamilton and Barbara Ransby. Dooley is a family medicine physician; Hamilton is a professor of labor, social policy, economics and African American studies at Ohio State University; and Ransby is a professor of African American studies, gender and women’s studies, and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“You’re aware that we have a dysfunctional health care system, and some 87 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured, so many of our people can’t afford to go to the doctor,” Sanders said to the livestream viewers. “You are aware that many people [are] living in cities where there are food deserts, where people cannot go and get decent quality food, fresh produce. You are aware that today, millions of people have no option but that they have to go to work because if they don’t go to work, they don’t have a paycheck. And if they don’t have a paycheck, they can’t take care of their families. And you are more than aware that we are living in a nation where we have widespread systemic racism.
“Now, you all know that stuff, but what does that have to do with the terrible pandemic, the COVID-19 pandemic that we are living through right this minute? The answer is it has a whole lot to do with this pandemic. And it has a whole lot to do with who lives and who dies in this pandemic, who gets sick, who doesn’t get sick, who gets treated, who doesn’t get treated.”
The senator brought up areas in the U.S. that coronavirus has not only hit hard but also has left Black Americans disproportionately affected. On Monday, Louisiana released data that shows African Americans accounting for 70% of all COVID-19 deaths in the state, even though they are roughly a third of the population. That same day, Chicago said that Black residents account for more than half of all positive COVID-19 cases and a staggering 72% of coronavirus-related deaths, while making up about 29% of the population.
“In Milwaukee, Wisconsin ― where, unbelievably enough, there is an election today, that’s a whole ’nother story ― twice as many Black residents have tested positive, compared to white residents, while comprising only 27% of the population,” Sanders said. “In community after community, state after state, what we are seeing, we don’t have a whole lot of statistics out yet because a lot of the deaths and illnesses for the coronavirus are not racially discussed or described. But what we are seeing is the African American community is suffering at a far, far higher rate than the white community.”
Dooley joined the livestream from Detroit, a majority-Black city that has emerged as a coronavirus hot spot with a high death toll. Black residents make up more than 40% of coronavirus-related deaths in Michigan, according to data released Friday. Dooley said that, “as shocking as” the statistics are, “they are predictable.”
The physician highlighted how Black Americans are more likely to have heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and sleep apnea ― chronic health problems that put people at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus because their immune systems are weakened.
Dooley, as well as the other panelists, stressed that many of these health problems in Black communities didn’t come out of thin air. With Black populations being disproportionately homeless, disproportionately incarcerated and disproportionately employed in low-paid “essential service” jobs, the panelists said, it’s no surprise the virus is infecting and killing Black people at a higher rate.
“We really can’t talk about this pandemic in colorblind terms,” Ransby told Sanders. “The intimate relationship between race and class in our society, in systems of injustice and inequality … they set the stage for what we are seeing so far.”
The experts, with the caveat that they are Sanders supporters, all said that the pandemic is a significant moment to take a look at the systems in place nationwide ― health care, criminal justice, homelessness, housing, environmental justice ― and see how these can be improved in a way so that the next crisis the U.S. faces will not hurt Black communities in the way that Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 financial crisis and the coronavirus have. They said that the policies the senator has campaigned on, such as “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, will help move systems in the right direction.
“Do we turn ourselves over to the people who say they know what’s best?” Ransby asked. “Or do we look at this as an opportunity to really rethink what’s best for us as a society?”
Last week, Sanders released his plan that prioritizes what should be in the next congressional coronavirus relief package, which is expected to build on the $2.3 trillion CARES Act and address public health and economic concerns arising from the pandemic. Among the senator’s proposals are to send each U.S. resident direct monthly $2,000 payments for the duration of the crisis; to maintain pre-crisis pay for all Americans; to suspend rent, mortgage, medical debt and consumer debt collection for four months; to provide paid medical and sick leave for all workers; and to provide hazard pay to essential workers.
President Donald Trump acknowledged the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on Black Americans at Tuesday’s daily White House coronavirus briefing, despite his own history of endorsing the racist systems that have led to the imbalance.
“It’s a tremendous challenge. It’s terrible,” he said, declining to detail any plan to address it.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, confirmed that comorbidities are higher in the African American population.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said that there is no data suggesting Black Americans are more susceptible to the virus but that “they are more susceptible to more difficult and severe disease and poorer outcomes.”
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