The coronavirus pandemic is holding a mirror up to inequities in America as black people represent more than half of the COVID-19 deaths in South Carolina, community advocates say.
For some, it’s the same old story.
“It’s not something that is wrong with us. It’s the burden that is constantly placed on us and, no matter how we look at it, the results will keep telling us that,” musician Benny Starr of Pineville says. “Until the solution actually targets that and admits that … these types of disparities will continue as we’re seeing now.”
Data released by the state’s health agency shows the coronavirus pandemic is similar to every other health issue in America. While 41 percent of confirmed coronavirus cases in South Carolina are black people, 56 percent of COVID-19 deaths are African Americans, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Statewide, African Americans only make up about 27 percent of the population, according to the Census Bureau.
“Hey, that ain’t news,” Orangeburg Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter says.
The most common underlying health conditions among the COVID-19 dead are heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure — health conditions that disproportionately affect minorities. DHEC released this statement about the racial disparity:
“Underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, obesity and asthma might make it more likely that African Americans are admitted to the ICU or die from the disease.”
But Cobb-Hunter says what’s missing from conversations about the pandemic is “delving into the systemic issues” about why more black and brown people are dying from this disease. Why are they more predisposed to underlying health conditions?
“To not address why that disparity is there doesn’t address the problem because it’s too difficult for people to talk about and admit that systemic and institutional racism is at the heart,” she says, adding that some will “want to accuse you of playing the race card” for saying that.
Transformation Yoga’s Kennae Miller of Summerville agreed.
“It’s almost as if the reports are not acknowledging why it is,” she said. “Imagine the trauma that’s being re-lived because you’ve been experiencing this pain and saying something’s wrong here, and people have said it’s all in your head.”
The pain is rooted as far back as slavery, according to Starr.
“We’re not that far removed from the origin of this country and the way this country has moved as progress has come. We still find ourselves under the weight of that racism,” Starr said.
It’s important to ask why many in the black community have underlying health conditions, Miller adds. Lack of access to fresh food and transportation are contributing factors too. A historical mistrust of the medical profession in the black community can be traced to past exploitation (think Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee experiment), inability to afford health insurance, forced sterilization campaigns, and the lack of healthcare providers in rural or blighted communities, according to Miller.
Now, Starr says the pandemic restrictions have compounded conditions already stacked against the black community by shuttering service-sector jobs and preventing the community from coming together physically.
But Miller said that the current crisis — from toilet paper shortages to rebuilding after an economic storm — offers an opportunity for the white majority to listen to those who have had little through the generations.
“Who should we be listening to now?” Miller said. “We should be looking to marginalized communities. We should be looking to people who have always had less … This isn’t new to this group of people so there’s wealth of wisdom and leadership that we have an opportunity to tap into.”
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