United Church of Christ – Wider Church Ministries
Humanitarian Development Team
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Daily Briefing
Barbara T. Baylor, MPH – Temporary Health Liaison
Skin Color Does Not Give You Protection from the Coronavirus
Editor’s Note: There’s a call to action in this issue to demand the federal government collect and release the breakdown of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) cases by race and ethnicity, and to take any additional necessary steps to ensure that all Americans have equal access to COVID-19 testing and treatment. Details below!
True or false? Black people are immune to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) because of melanin.
The answer: “False!” Melanin does NOT protect against COVID-19. Anyone who comes into contact with COVID-19 is at risk for contracting it.
The rumor of Black invincibility has spread among some Black communities after it was reported that a Cameroonian studying in China became infected with the deadly COVID-19, was hospitalized and recovered. Yes, he recovered, but his recovery was NOT due to his “dark skin” and superior immune system possessed by people from Africa.
While it seems laughable that someone would believe this, it is sobering as we recount times that it has been said in jest by both white and Black people that Black people can take pain, are superhuman, invincible or supernatural, especially when it comes to sports. This bias has also carried over to health.
One such example of this bias was during the 1740s yellow fever outbreak in Charleston, South Carolina. Upon inspecting slave ships and their cargo, including African captives, physician John Lining observed that it was almost exclusively white people who were succumbing to the disease, reinforcing beliefs that Africans had some kind of supernatural inoculation to some of the deadliest diseases floating along the American coast.
Lining’s observation also guided Dr. Benjamin Rush when, in 1793, a yellow fever outbreak took hold of Philadelphia, Pa. Convincing Blacks that they were immune to the disease, Rush trained them as nurses, caretakers, and grave diggers for the thousands of people dying of yellow fever. Many of the African Americans in his medical camp contracted the disease and died.
Although he relied on faulty claims about race and health that proved fatally wrong, Benjamin Rush went on to be named the “Father of American Psychiatry” by the American Psychiatric Association. Today many Black people may believe some myths as real possibilities because they remember from history experiments on Black people in the name of health research.
An article in ProPublica suggests that when the shelter-in-place order came for COVID-19, there was a natural pushback among those who recalled other painful government restrictions - including segregation and mass incarceration - on where Black people could walk and gather
According to the National Center for Health Statistics in "2015: With Special Feature on Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities," it is well established that Blacks and other minority groups in the United States experience MORE illness, WORSE outcomes, and a GREATER instance of premature death compared with whites. These health disparities were first “officially” noted in the 1980s, and though a concerted effort by government agencies resulted in some improvement, the most recent report shows ongoing differences by race and ethnicity for all measures.
COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, but physicians in public health and on the front lines are already seeing the emergence of familiar patterns of racial and economic bias in the response to the pandemic. The biotech data firm Rubix Life Sciences, based in Lawrence, Mass., reviewed recent billing information in several states and found that an African American with symptoms like cough and fever was less likely to be given one of the scarce COVID-19 tests. We know that delays in diagnosis and treatment can be harmful, especially for racial or ethnic minority groups that have higher rates of certain diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney disease. Those chronic illnesses can lead to more severe cases of COVID-19.
Although the CDC is not yet collecting national COVID-19 data by race, recent statistics from city and state health departments have come to light showing that African Americans are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The widening racial divide in who gets infected, who gets tested, and who dies from COVID-19 is emerging from the few cities and states whose data is public:
according to the Illinois Department of Public Health, Black citizens accounted for 29 percent of confirmed cases and 41 percent of deaths, yet they make up only 15 percent of the state’s population.
Michigan’s population is 14 percent Black, yet they account for 35 percent of cases and 40 percent of deaths. Detroit, where a majority of residents are Black, has emerged as a hot spot with a high death toll.
In Wisconsin, Pro Publica first reported that African Americans number nearly half of the 941 cases in Milwaukee County and 81 percent of its 27 deaths while the population is 26 percent Black.
New Orleans, La., has not published case breakdowns by race, but 40 percent of the state’s deaths have happened in Orleans Parish, where the majority of residents are Black.
North Carolina is publishing statistics on COVID-19 cases by race, and the data shows a disproportionate number of African Americans were infected.
Clearly, it is NOT a myth that Black people are disproportionately ADVERSELY affected by COVID-19, due to historical practices, beliefs and values related to skin color that continue to affect their health and the way they receive healthcare.
Call to Action
The American Public Health Association, The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, five members of Congress and over 400 medical professionals recently wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, whose department encompasses the CDC, demanding the federal government collect and release the breakdown of coronavirus cases by race and ethnicity.
The collective clarion call urges CDC to not delay in collecting this vital information, and to take any additional necessary steps to ensure that all Americans have the access they need to COVID-19 testing and treatment.
Faith communities are urged to join this letter-writing campaign. Click here for their letter, which you can endorse and/or use to develop talking points for your calls, letters and emails.
Contact Information for HHS Secretary Azar:
The Honorable Alex M. Azar II
Secretary U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20201
202-205-5445 HHS Comment Line
202-690-7000 HHS Secretary’s Office
What you need to know about covid19
U.S. government is urged to release race, ethnicity data on COVID-19 cases
Early Data Shows African Americans Have Contracted and Died of Coronavirus at an Alarming Rate
Doctors Are Concerned That Black Communities Might Not Be Getting Access To Coronavirus Tests
Racism and discrimination in health care: Providers and patients
‘We’re flying blind’: African Americans may be bearing the brunt of COVID-19, but access to data are limited
Long-standing racial, income disparities seen creeping into COVID-19 care
Black people are disproportionately affected by Coronavirus
Black Americans Face Alarming Rates of Coronavirus Infection in Some States