In Pensacola, nearly 200 African Americans gathered at an apartment complex to celebrate Easter. They stood together unmasked, closer than six feet apart. They hugged, talked face-to-face and carried on with the jubilance of any holiday party. Normally, the takeaway would have been “a community celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
But today, we live nowhere near normal. We live in a world where we cross the street to avoid passing our neighbor on the sidewalk. We video chat with our loved ones, wear latex gloves in the grocery store, hide our lower faces behind homemade shields, and rarely leave the house. This is life during a pandemic, and it is quickly becoming our new normal.
The police broke up the Easter celebrants, largely because they were violating the safe distance guidelines most of the world is adhering to: stay six feet apart, because if just one drop of your saliva contains the coronavirus COVID-19, you could infect another person and start a domino effect of illness. Now, we have more evidence that for Black people in America, that one drop could be deadly.
Identifying the Problem
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Black Americans make up 13.4 percent of the American population; but account for more than half of all COVID-19 cases and nearly 60 percent of the deaths, a study found. The report went on to disclose that health disparities, including access to health care, are likely to blame.
“I am a little bit surprised that there are folks who seem to have been caught off guard by these increased numbers in the Black community,” said B. Lee Green, Ph.D., during a virtual town hall meeting conducted by ONYX Magazine and Orlando City Commissioner Regina I. Hill (District 5). “These are the same issues we have seen with disparities over the last 30, 40, 50 years. These issues cause health disparities and increased deaths in Blacks. So, basically, COVID-19 has shone more of a light on the issue of racial health disparities and this is certainly a wakeup call for our country.”
Green, the vice president of Diversity, Public Relations and Strategic Communications at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, said researchers found there were several factors that put this population at higher risk of having complications with COVID-19.
“Being of older age, being male, having pre-existing conditions like obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, asthma… minorities seem to have more of these underlying conditions,” he said. In fact, African Americans have a 40 percent higher rate of high blood pressure and 60 percent higher rate of diabetes than White Americans, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Compounding the problem are the circumstances under which a large number of African Americans live. Many of the communities are in poor areas with high housing density and they lack access to healthcare, healthy foods, green space, and health education; not to mention high unemployment rates.
Among the employed, Black people tend to be the essential, frontline workers—having the types of jobs that don’t allow the luxury of working from home. Green added that “being underinsured or having no insurance limits the access to necessary are and treatments,” because how do you get treated if you cannot pay for it? All these factors, fueled by systemic racism and lack of trust, raise the death toll.
Fighting the Enemy
So, how do we quell the beast? There still is so much unknown about the virus and conflicting information continues to flow into American homes. There currently is no treatment approved for COVID-19, and no cure for an infection. Instead, treatment focuses on managing symptoms as the virus runs its course. Experts have said studies are under way for treatment and vaccine, but we could be well into 2021 before that happens.
“The best prevention is for patients is to be compliant with their medications, follow proper hygiene—taking two showers per
day (and washing hands)—and to educate themselves about the virus so they can, at their level, articulate it to someone else. That…gives them a leg up to keep their families safe,” said Jason Littleton, M.D., America’s Energy Doctor. A boosted immune system also is a formidable foe against coronaviruses, said Dr. Littleton, owner of Littleton Concierge Medicine in Orlando.
“You must follow your doctor’s instructions. What I tell my patients is Vitamin D, Vitamin C and Zinc are very important. Keeping your blood sugar appropriate, drinking water, exercising if you can, getting good sleep, not eating a lot of sugar, also are important,” Dr. Littleton stresses. “Sugar is totally bad in this situation. If you drink alcohol or sodas, this is not the time to do that. If you smoke, it’s a good time to quit. Those things can hurt your immune system. Your body is designed to beat viruses, but if you do those things, you hamper your body from doing what it’s supposed to do.”
Moving Beyond COVID-19
At a White House coronavirus task force briefing in April, Director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci, M.D., expressed the need to bridge the racial health gap. “We will get over coronavirus—but there will still be health disparities…which we really do need to address in the African American community,” he said.
So what role do community leaders and health facilities play in dialing up health outcomes in the Black community? The experts say the responsibility is substantial.
“It’s up to our local health departments to give us some data on race, gender and age so it can be readily available to our social scientists, doctors and public researchers—to formulate a better preparedness plan for a (possible) upcoming wave (of coronavirus),”
Commissioner Hill said. “We as leaders need to do a better job and put a strategic plan together for Black and Brown communities and the homeless.”
“Prevention takes a back seat to treatment,” said Green. “We have to advocate to get more funding for prevention and health education in Black and Brown communities.”
African Americans’ lack of trust in the medical system also complicates the situation. Some suggest that churches get involved in delivering health messages and as triage centers and testing sites to help residents feel more comfortable in believing in the process. It also helps when trusted voices take the lead. Shani Davis, Ph.D., owner of Your Best You Clinic in Tampa, admired the healthy tips door hanger and mask distribution campaigns conducted by ONYX Magazine and Commissioner Hill, which reached thousands of residents in District 5.
“We need a campaign like that one in Tampa and in other Florida cities. We need a trusting voice to say, ‘take a listen, we need to know about this condition, we need to understand about wearing masks, social distancing, because we can be affected.’ A trusting voice is very important for preventing transmission of disease,” she said.
Orlando City Commissioner Bakari Burns (District 6) also is the CEO of the Healthcare Center for the Homeless at Orange Blossom Health Center. He said his facility is prepared to provide solutions to health disparities.
“Residents need to establish a primary care home for access to healthcare, prescriptions, dental services, mental health,” he said. “Orange Blossom Health provides health services on a sliding scale, so regardless of patients’ ability to pay, they can still get the health services they need.”
Less than a month after that gathering in Pensacola, Florida has seen more than 1,000 deaths, according to the Florida Department of Health. But still, people appear at ease when forming in large numbers. Will this need for human interaction cause another wave of the coronavirus? Only time will tell. Until then, we wash our hands, don our masks and wave from afar.
By D. Shenell Reed