As clergy serving the black community, we are called once again to cry out as COVID-19 devastates our churches and neighborhoods. This disease continues to have a disproportionate impact on minorities. The racial disparity cannot be denied.
As of May 7, the City of St. Louis had reported 83 deaths from COVID-19 and 1,450 cases. Of the 83 victims of the pandemic in the city, 57 (68.7%) were black. Of the 1,450 COVID-19 cases reported in the city, 959 (or 66.1%) were black. Only 45.9% of the city’s population is black, according to U.S. Census data.
St. Louis County reports that the death rate for COVID-19 for blacks is more than twice that of whites and that blacks are more than three times more likely to test positive than whites.
There are many reasons for this; some are systemic problems of long-standing. Minorities have higher rates of chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and coronary artery disease, which are leading risk factors for severe illness from the new coronavirus. Inequities in housing, employment, and most importantly, health care, all play roles in the heavy toll COVID-19 is taking.
Many of our neighborhoods are called “underserved” for very good reason. The surgeon general of the United States, Dr. Jerome Adams, recently said, “The chronic burden of medical ills is likely to make people of color less resilient to the ravages of COVID-19 and it is possibly, in fact, likely, that the burden of social ills is also contributing.”
As reported by the AARP, African Americans and other minority groups are not more inherently susceptible to getting infected by the new coronavirus, but they are more likely to have a harder time recovering if they are infected.
Carlos Rodríguez-Díaz, associate professor of prevention and community health at George Washington University, said minorities “experience social factors that are constantly putting us in a disadvantaged place to respond to an epidemic and to recover from diseases” – for example, unstable housing and lack of access to health care. “Social factors represent a significant role in our ability to be healthy,” he said. “And if we don't have access to those social resources, then we are in worse conditions to deal with a pandemic.”
This crisis is bringing these inequities out in the stark sunlight, and we pledge to continue to work to address them after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. But our immediate concern is to stop the alarming number of deaths in our black communities.
We agree with Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, who said, “We demand COVID-19 testing, treatment, health care, equipment, and data for African Americans and people of color. We call on our government to address disproportionate deaths and to stand with communities that for far too long have endured the structural racism that leads to these alarming numbers of deaths.”
In addition to these chronic ills of our society, more subtle bias can make a difference. For example, we all know by now that the most important factor in stopping the spread of the disease is testing. We believe there is bias in who gets tested and treated, and who gets assistance and who doesn’t. Minorities are being tested the least but dying the most. We have congregants who show symptoms but are not tested, while others showing no symptoms get a test.
As the community being hit the hardest and disproportionately so, we must have a major say in steps being taken towards recovery. Yet at the state level our voices have been drowned out by others whose interests are not the health and well-being of the general public, much less minorities and disadvantaged, but their own business and profit.
We call upon Governor Parson and the State of Missouri to take a number of steps.
It is absolutely essential that all COVID-19 data be made public on a timely basis: numbers of tests given, cases confirmed, illnesses and deaths, and demographic information, including race and income. Complete information is the key to effective public education and cooperation.
We call upon Governor Parson to reconsider the lifting of restrictions on businesses. Opening up the state right now endangers the health of all of our citizens, but especially the lower-income workers who will provide the labor. Minorities are heavily employed in service positions that pay less and have fewer benefits. Our congregants do not have the luxury of taking time off of work or calling in sick. They are deemed “essential labor” but are not treated as such.
We also stress the urgency of making testing free and available. Our residents must be able to get tested. Drive-through sites are not enough— testing must also be brought to nursing homes, congregations, shelters, and community centers.
The state should immediately implement an emergency communications plan, as strong or stronger than an emergency weather alert. This should include phone and text messaging to targeted neighborhoods; public service announcements on urban radio stations and in black newspapers; and posters and flyers for local governments, elected officials, clergy, and local businesses to distribute.
Governor Parson should declare an immediate moratorium on eviction and foreclosure proceedings, and also on utility shut-offs.
The state must also make prison testing a higher priority. Right now, people in prison are sitting ducks to fall victim to the spread of this disease.
Information and communication in this time of crisis are critical, and we as faith leaders have pledged to do our part to educate our community. But we cannot be effective without the support of our government leaders. We do not believe that Governor Parson is treating the pandemic’s impact on minorities with the urgency it demands. He must take immediate steps to address this crisis.
Pastor B.T. Rice is pastor of New Horizon Seventh Day Christian Church.