‘People of color want freedom … from infection, freedom from death’

George Floyd protests in Columbus. Photo by Tyler Buchanan.

WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately harmed communities of color, laying bare the systemic racial disparities across the United States, experts have told lawmakers across the country.

Early evidence suggests there are elevated rates of infection and death from COVID-19 in African American populations and other communities of color.

Nationwide, Black Americans are dying at nearly two times the rate of their population share, according to the COVID Project from The Atlantic. And Latino Americans are disproportionately testing positive for the virus in 41 states and Washington, D.C., according to the COVID Project.

“This is the racial pandemic within the viral pandemic,” said Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University and one of the creators of the COVID racial data tracker. He’s also the author of “How to Be an Antiracist.”

Kendi testified at a hearing Wednesday in the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, the powerful tax-writing committee in Congress.

The historic hearing was the first official virtual hearing in the House of Representatives, as lawmakers make unprecedented changes to the way they operate on Capitol Hill.

“While the virus may be new, this story is as old as the Republic itself — the disparate ways in which this virus is impacting African American and Hispanic communities,” U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, of Pennsylvania, said at the hearing.

Pandemic highlights disparities

Kendi said lawmakers need to look at policy across the board and its effects on race.

“People of color want freedom,” Kendi said. “I am not talking about freedom to get a haircut. I am talking about the most fundamental freedoms that have been denied for far too long,  freedom from infection, freedom from death.”

Kendi and other researchers developed the tracking website due to gaps in data and reporting on how the virus is affecting minorities. Kendi says years of racist policies have led to this point.

“We should be asking why are Black and Latino people less likely to be working from home, less likely to be insured, less likely to live in unpolluted neighborhoods,” Kendi told lawmakers. “The answer is racist policy.”

Dr. Alicia Fernandez, a professor of medicine at the University of California in San Francisco, said that at her hospital, most of the Latinos who are testing positive from COVID-19 are unable to work from home.

“COVID-19 has revealed the great health impact of how we work and live, the social determinants of health,” said Fernandez.

U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, also of Pennsylvania, who has recovered from his own bout with the virus, touted economic growth as the solution.

“The return to a very robust and dynamic economy, isn’t that the cure for a lot of the things we want to get done?” Kelly said. “I think the answer to almost everything we are talking about right now is that every single American has the same opportunity as another American, regardless of where you live, the color of your skin, how you worship, or your gender.”

Kelly was diagnosed with COVID-19 at the end of March after testing positive at a drive-through testing site at Butler Memorial Hospital.

‘There’s an urgency’

As communities and businesses begin to reopen, testing and contact tracing are seen as key to keep the virus from spreading. But experts say states need to make sure the access is equitable.

“In order to protect the lives of the most vulnerable populations in our society without a vaccine and without a drug, the only thing to do is to keep those populations from infections in the first place. That is going to take testing and contact tracing,” said Dr. James Hildreth, president and CEO of Meharry Medical College in Tennessee.

Hildreth and leaders from the three other historically Black medical schools — Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in California, Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta — want lawmakers to fund a consortium from their schools that would provide expanded testing, contact tracing and research. They say their institutions are poised to work with community groups and churches to create networks of contact tracers that people can trust.

“There’s an urgency here that I cannot overstate that we need to be doing these things now,” Hildreth said.

Testing sites are not always readily available to some communities across the United States.

Only four states currently have public racial breakdowns for everyone who is tested: Nevada, Delaware, Kansas and Illinois. And a new analysis from National Public Radio found that testing sites are disproportionately located in whiter neighborhoods in four out of six of the largest cities in Texas. Testing disparities have also been reported in New York City and Chicago.

House Democrats included funding for testing centers in minority communities as part of the wide-ranging coronavirus relief package they approved earlier this month. The bill is unlikely to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., also introduced legislation Wednesday intended to increase capacity for testing in underserved areas. The Rapid Testing for Communities Act would give grants to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to support testing outside of labs, with priority for underserved areas.

“These conversations can be difficult, but we are at a crucial stage and as communities begin to loosen restrictions, these will worsen,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., said at the conclusion of the hearing Wednesday.

“We can save lives by understanding what communities of color need and taking action.”