‘A Perfect Storm': Health Disparities Faced by Black America Spark Calls for Action

Organizers call for policy changes to turn the tide, which has evoked comparisons to a national Hurricane Katrina

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About a dozen black women in Chicago came together to create a modern social club, but just as they planned their first meeting the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States -- and has since struck Chicago hard. Black Women Organizing for Power (BWOP Chicago) pivoted and launched their political action group in only six weeks.

Founder Raquel McGee, 28, says the group’s redefined goal is to combat COVID-19 in Chicagoland, the midwestern mecca for black American culture and politics, and throughout Illinois.

Black people represent 45.1 percent of the 661 coronavirus deaths in Chicago, as reported by the city of Chicago on April 23, a steady decline since earlier this month when the number of black deaths was 70 percent. Yet Chicago's black population is only 30.1 percent, and Latino and white populations are 29 percent and 32.8 percent respectively, according to 2019 U.S. Census figures.

COVID-19's impact on some cities is replicated on the black population nationwide. There were 828,441 total U.S. coronavirus cases and 46,379 total deaths, as of April 23. African Americans represented 33.7 percent of the cases nationwide, but only 13.4 percent of the population, according to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I want to make sure that we disrupt that narrative that it is so-called personal choices that are creating this disproportionate impact," McGee said.

"The answer lies in the systems that have always existed to suppress black American ADOS – American Descendants of Slavery. The systems that have always suppressed black American lives are still with us and they are rearing their ugly heads through this crisis."

Raquel McGee is the founder of Black Women Organizing for Power Chicago. Founded just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic became national news, the group has shifted its focus to serving the Chicago community through COVID-19. The dozen or so members started a petition and community survey.
Raquel McGee is the founder of Black Women Organizing for Power Chicago. Founded just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic became national news, the group has shifted its focus to serving the Chicago community's COVID-19 needs. The ten members started a petition and community survey.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot agrees that more must be done to curb the systemic problems laid bare by the statistics.

"The fact that black people are dying at seven times the rate of any other demographic is stunning. It is a red alarm, an alert that we've got to respond to and we are in our city,” Lightfoot told Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC.

BWOP Chicago is proposing multiple solutions to address the needs that underserved populations are experiencing.

McGee is a high school English teacher and describes herself as having no political or organizing experience. The millennial has not yet met her fellow BWOP Chicago group members in person due to quarantine guidelines. They use Zoom video conferencing and social media to organize, set agenda items and to distribute information about their petition and community survey targeting black women. The group's members consist of retired women and those working in retail, the nonprofit sector, education and politics.

The group plans uses Twitter and Facebook to share their list of demands directed to local and state government officials. 

BWOP Chicago is requesting that the city of Chicago designate $6 million in federal funding received by the Chicago Department of Public Health to programs for impacted black communities.

In addition, they are asking the city to establish a monthly quarantine allowance or hazard pay for essential workers, to create a Black Community Digital Resource Hub and Hotline and to release a Black Community Disaster Relief Plan, according to their statement. They also have demands for state-level officials, including designating $2 billion of federal funding from the stimulus package to help black communities. 

McGee says the group’s rationale is that black communities are disproportionately impacted by coronavirus and there's a great need for more testing and prevention. 

BWOP Chicago's request of $6 million for black communities is about 70 percent of the total federal aid that Chicago Department of Public Health received for coronavirus. They say that figure represents the approximately 70 percent death rate for black Chicagoans when data was first reported.

BWOP Chicago cites the need for testing sites in the zip codes hardest hit. Drive-thru testing facilities do not meet the need of citizens that use public transportation and therefore don't drive and BWOP Chicago is concerned poor citizens will be turned away.

McGee is hopeful an alderman will allow the group’s requests to be presented at the next city council meeting.

032212 al sharpton

“When America catches a cold, Black America catches pneumonia,” Rev. Al Sharpton tweeted on March 27.

Other voices nationwide are echoing a call for targeted action to address the coronavirus’ disproportionate and deadly impact on blacks and communities of color. 

Former President Barack Obama said the government should remember those hardest hit as lawmakers continue to make policy decisions.

"We can't deny that racial and socioeconomic factors are playing a role in who is being hit the hardest by the virus. It's a reminder for our policymakers to keep our most vulnerable communities at the forefront when making decisions,” Obama tweeted on April 13.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has led multiple virtual town halls with experts to keep communities informed and call on government agencies to release more data and protections for African Americans amid the pandemic. They've also partnered with other organizations to amplify this message, such as National African American Tobacco Prevention Network (NAATPN) and Council on Black Health.

“Now more than ever, Black people are paying the price for our short- and long-term policy failures through compromised health and an early demise. Enough is enough,” said Derrick Johnson, NAACP president. 

Rev. Al Sharpton and National Action Network (NAN) are working to address food insecurity during the pandemic. NAN is partnering with World Central Kitchen to "deliver thousands of hot and cold meals daily to those in need" in Harlem at the organization's headquarters and in Newark, New Jersey. 

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New York, NY (March 25, 2020) - In the wake of the unprecedented emergency impacting the country due to Coronavirus (COVID-19), Rev. Al Sharpton and National Action Network (NAN) partnered with World Central Kitchen to deliver thousands of hot and cold meals daily to those in need at NAN’s Harlem headquarters “The House of Justice” and at NAN Newark Tech World in Newark, New Jersey. In New Jersey the New Jersey Reentry Corporation is a partner with World Central Kitchen and NAN is providing food to seniors, reentry program participants, housing authority residents, and persons in need. “With the traditional safety nets like school feeding programs, childcare services, and senior centers closing, many in our communities will not to be able to provide for their families,” said Reverend Al Sharpton. “Our partnership with World Central Kitchen is to ensure our community that we are here for them. In times of stress and struggle, we all need to support one another.” Families will also be able to take advantage of LyftUp, Lyft’s comprehensive effort to expand transportation access to those who need it most. Harlem, New York Monday-Saturday from 12 NOON until meals are distributed) National Action Network’s House of Justice 106 West 145th Street (At Malcolm X Blvd.) Newark, New Jersey Monday-Saturday from 12 NOON until meals are distributed) NAN TechWorld 400 Hawthorne Avenue, Newark, New Jersey #OperationFeedHarlem #OperationFeedNewark

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Dr. Patrice Harris, the 174th president of the American Medical Association (AMA) and the first African American woman to hold the post, has kept a focus on raising awareness for health disparities in the public and within the medical community. It's among the top priorities she announced when she began her two-year term last year. The AMA created an equity project prior to the coronavirus and since the disease has spread, it has proven the need for more awareness, she said.

“I spent the first two weeks of this pandemic dispelling rumors -- that African Americans could not become infected,” Dr. Harris said. “I think people should care (about health disparities) because we have certain folks who don’t have equitable access and opportunities to be healthy. That should concern us all.”

Dr. Patrice Harris is the 174th president of the American Medical Association. She is also in private practice as a psychiatrist and has elevated health disparities, childhood trauma and the opioid crisis as areas of focus.
Dr. Patrice Harris is the 174th president of the American Medical Association. She is also in private practice as a psychiatrist and has elevated health disparities, childhood trauma and the opioid crisis as areas of focus.

The Atlanta-based psychiatrist is calling for more race data from the CDC and local agencies. She says the medical community can provide targeted recommendations and practicing physicians may treat their communities more effectively with more data. 

Congress is listening and lawmakers are calling on each other to act.

“We have a duty and responsibility as members of Congress to make sure we direct our agencies to do the right thing… The immediate problem is getting this data, getting people tested, getting people treated,” Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., told Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC.

Members of Congress have requested more data, and funding for more testing so that health disparities are addressed.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., and 16 members of Congress sent a letter dated April 8 to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asking Congress to create a committee dedicated to investigating the disproportionate percentage of minority mortality from COVID-19.

“We must act soon to save lives,” Richmond tweeted.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, noted during an April 7 White House press briefing that the coronavirus is shining “a very bright light on some of the weaknesses and foils in our society.” He said health disparities faced by African Americans have always existed and are “unacceptable.”

“It’s not that they are getting infected more often. It’s that when they do get infected, their underlying medical conditions -- the diabetes, the hypertension, the obesity, the asthma -- those are the kind of things that wind them up in the ICU and ultimately give them a higher death rate,” Dr. Fauci said.

“So when all this is over, and as we said, it will end. We will get over coronavirus. But there will still be health disparities, which we really do need to address in the African American community.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci commented on his meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus on Monday, saying that resources and testing need to be made more readily available in African-American communities that are “suffering much more disproportionately.”

Mistrust of medicine in the black community has existed for decades and is referred to as the "Tuskegee effect," after the government conducted a 40-year experiment beginning in the 1930s that did not treat hundreds of black men with syphilis. Experts say the handling of COVID-19 by government agencies will have an impact on trust in the black community today. Lawmakers are focused on improving medical health and also well-being of populations at risk. Last week, six senators proposed legislation for police anti-bias training to curb the potential of police profiling and police stops of black men wearing a mask or face covering. Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker are among the group of senators who brought forth the measure.


While New York City has received a lot of attention as the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, those in surrounding areas are also anxious.

How Coronavirus Has Grown in Each State — in 1 Chart

This chart shows the cumulative number of cases per state by number of days since the 500th case.

Source: The COVID Tracking Project
Credit: Amy O’Kruk/NBC

Brentwood, situated about 45 miles outside New York City, is a diverse community that is 67 percent Hispanic and 15 percent black. Many of its residents are essential workers, working-class or middle-class people who either commute to New York City or work locally on the front lines, in restaurants and at their own businesses, according to native Kaliah Greene, who works in education. 

"This is the perfect storm for an underserved community," said Kaliah, 39, who evoked a national parallel to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and its devastating impact on New Orleans' black community, which has yet to fully recover.

She and her brother, Moses T. Alexander Greene, a 46-year-old and 10th generation New Yorker are worried that the historical significance of their hometowns -- Bay Shore and Brentwood, New York -- could be wiped out from the devastating impact of COVID-19.

They say Brentwood is one of the few places on Long Island where working-class people can afford to live and often reside in multi-family dwellings. They worry about residents losing their ability to maintain housing and possible gentrification in a post-COVID-19 world. 

Kaliah Greene started a mommy meetup for friends to help them cope with COVID-19. The educator and mother of two says she’s worried about what her Central Islip community and nearby Brentwood will look like after the virus goes away. She fears it may take decades for families and businesses to become stable again.
Courtesy of Kaliah Greene
Kaliah Greene started a mommy meet up for friends to help friends cope with COVID-19. The educator and mother of two says she’s worried about what Brentwood will look like after the virus goes away. She fears it may take decades for families and businesses to become stable again.

"When you look at this pandemic, Brentwood, unfortunately, is the perfect storm because it deals with race, class, housing, healthcare... not everyone can afford to shelter in place," Kaliah said.

Kaliah knows people in the community who have succumbed to the virus. She said she’s had two breakdowns in a month as she’s juggled working from home, taking care of her infant and 4-year-old, and worrying about her first responder husband. She anxiously awaited her own coronavirus test results for nearly a week, but was relieved when the results came back negative. 

She started hosting a support group for mothers via videoconferencing to help others dealing with the same uncertainties of everyday life.

The Greenes' mother still resides in Brentwood. The family is focused on ensuring she is healthy, keeping her indoors, and dropping off food and packages to her door, and other elderly relatives, as needed.

"Maybe now people will address in policy those glaring inequalities that black and brown communities have been talking about for years. This is not surprising to us because we have been living this…. I am sad but I am hopeful that now we have to address the problem versus act like it doesn’t exist," Moses said.

Moses T. Alexander Greene is a native of Long Island and expresses concern about the coronavirus destroying the rich history of his hometown of Bay Shore. Greene has traced his family’s history on Long Island and in New York state back 10 generations
Courtesy of Moses T. Alexander Greene
Moses T. Alexander Greene is a native of Long Island and expresses concern about the coronavirus destroying the rich history of his hometown of Bay Shore. Greene has traced his family’s history on Long Island and in New York state back 10 generations.


Northern New Jersey, Detroit, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., are among the urban centers seeing a rise in coronavirus cases, and deaths of black and brown citizens. The number of Latinos who have died from COVID-19 are also sobering. Latinos make up 23 percent of coronavirus cases nationwide despite making up 18 percent of the population, according to CDC data as of April 20. In addition to health disparities, access to health care, food and housing insecurity, and essential workers, Latinx communities often face immigration status issues.

New Jersey has seen the second-highest total number of COVID-19 deaths among U.S. states with 5,063 deaths as of April 21, according to state data.

A week ago, Theo Spencer of Camden, New Jersey, tried to make contact with his uncle Leroy Stanley, living in his 60s at a nursing home. He became worried after not receiving a response. Stanley moved to a North Jersey nursing home last month, and finally returned a family member's phone call last weekend. They were relieved to talk with him and hear he was OK. Stanley had some preexisting conditions, as he battled cancer a few years ago.

Spencer, a former member of the Camden Board of Education and former candidate for mayor, was shocked when he saw a news report a few weeks ago that 17 bodies were found at Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center I and II in Sussex County, the same home where his uncle moved to.

In a surprise, the nursing home staff contacted the family on Tuesday to inform them that Stanley died that morning, just three days after they last spoke with him. Spencer himself found out about his uncle's passing via text.

"He might have been safer at home versus the facility," said Spencer, who recalled his uncle walking around Camden with a lawnmower offering to cut grass.

"I’m really kind of pissed. Just really really angered. He had all the situations that make black people vulnerable in this pandemic... He was a good brother and uncle."

Spencer says he is not certain his uncle even died of the coronavirus because the facility has not provided any information to the family.

The full scale of the virus on nursing homes is not yet clear as comprehensive data is not readily available. There are reportedly more than 2,200 nursing home deaths from coronavirus so far but the government isn't tracking all of them.


Citizens, community organizers and celebrities alike are weighing in on how to fix COVID-19’s lethal grip on black and brown communities.

Michael McBride, a pastor in California's San Francisco Bay Area, is working to stop the virus’ spread immediately in the short-term. He founded Masks for the People, a nationwide program targeting 8 cities to deliver masks and hand sanitizer to urban populations. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently donated $1 million to the effort. 

Also, Dorsey set up a fund called #startsmall, which represents 28 percent of his wealth or $1 billion, and vowed to donate it to charitable causes with the first funds going to fight coronavirus.

Experts have discussed the need for more small business support in minority communities. During its series of webinars on the topic, the NAACP brought together experts to discuss the notion -- will black businesses survive COVID19?

City officials nationwide are being proactive. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney joined 500 mayors calling on the federal government to reinstate guidelines to support women and minority-owned businesses.

As community organizers are working to develop policy requests, essential workers, doctors and nurses continue to work tirelessly to save lives and improve public health.

In Philadelphia, a group of black doctors have taken to the streets to administer mobile COVID-19 testing. The Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, founded by North Philadelphia native Dr. Ala Stanford, has conducted 800 tests to date at three locations over three days.

The coalition of health care providers seeks to provide more education on COVID-19, in addition to administering mobile testing in the hardest-hit areas of Philadelphia.

Dr. Ala Stanford, center, with Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium volunteers at a mobile COVID-19 testing site in Philadelphia.

Celebrities have joined the chorus of concern to raise community awareness. Oprah Winfrey is working on a special television program on blacks and COVID-19.

She's dedicated Oprah Talks COVID-19, a series of interviews on Apple TV, to discussing the impact of COVID-19 on minority communities. She's also donated $10 million to the effort. Among those Winfrey has interviewed are Chicago's Mayor Lightfoot, experts and families who have lost loved ones to the virus, including the family of Lawrence Riley, a Navy veteran, former firefighter and Milwaukee's first coronavirus victim.

“Every day matters in a person’s life…. Corona came to town. We wasn’t expecting it but it came," said Linda Riley, Lawrence's wife. "This is serious, something we cannot see."

Actor and comedian Tyler Perry took to Instagram to honor his hairdresser who passed away and to raise awareness about the lethal nature of this silent killer.

"Black people, we are at a disproportionately higher risk of dying from this virus. Please, please, please, I beg you to take this seriously. You have to socially distance yourself. That means stop hanging out, stop congregating, stop doing anything that will put not only your life in danger but also the lives of so many others. STAY HOME!!" Perry wrote.

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Dear Black People, Today it’s with a heavy heart that I inform you of the passing of one of our crew members. Mr. Charles Gregory was a hairstylist that had worked with us for many years. The man was warm, loving and hilarious. We all loved to see him coming and hear his laughter. Charles lost his battle with COVID-19 today. It saddens me to think of him dying this way. My sincerest prayers are with his family. While everyone can contract this virus it is black people who are dying from it in much larger numbers. This thing is real, black people. I heard a black person say, “Black people don’t get it.” That is a lie! You can get it, and you will get it if we don’t do what we're being told to do. A 26 year old black woman died the other day, a 44 year old black man died the other day, not to mention the hundreds of people that are dying every few minutes. Your age does not matter!! Your health does not matter. You could be totally healthy, and you could die! Now listen to me. You have been right by my side since I started in this business, so please hear me with your heart. I LOVE US. I love our humor. I love our culture. I love our hair. I love our skin. I love everything about who we are. All of us. And I love us all too much to watch us die on the vine because we are the last to know and we are not taking this pandemic seriously. Black people, we are at a disproportionately higher risk of dying from this virus. Please, please, please, I beg you to take this seriously. You have to socially distance yourself. That means stop hanging out, stop congregating, stop doing anything that will put not only your life in danger but also the lives of so many others. STAY HOME!! Socially distance yourself and stay alive! If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for someone you love, and for those who love you. My Mother always told me to not wait for help! Be your own help!

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Colin Kaepernick launched the Know Your Rights Camp COVID-19 Relief Fund to address the disproportionate effect on black and brown communities.

Kaepernick said the impact being seen in those communities is due to “hundreds of years of structural racism.” 

Beyonce Knowles' BeyGOOD initiative is pledging $6 million to support organizations on the ground who are working to address "dire needs in some of the hardest hit areas," including mental health initiatives and programs that support essential workers.

As families struggle to mourn their loved ones with restrictions placed on funerals because of the virus, Chicago's new women's social group turned coronavirus community action organization remains steadfast in its new mission and is just getting to work.

Mobilizing is BWOP Chicago's primary focus as they are efforting to partner with other local groups to spread the word about their community survey to get a clear picture of the impact on Chicagoland. Their request of elected officials to immediately expand and target testing to stop the black death toll also addresses systemic inequity. They believe those actions will curb the virus for all.

“We’ve never dealt with the legacy of redlining and segregation and stolen wealth. We’ve never really reckoned with that and now our chickens are coming home to roost,” McGee said.

“The time is now for substantive real change. It’s not going to be acceptable any longer to sell us rainbows and a pot of gold. Bring us to the table.”

The parents of a 5-year-old girl from Michigan who died from COVID-19 related complications are sharing their grief in hopes of getting others to stay at home. Skylar Herbert is the youngest person to die of coronavirus in Michigan. Her parents are both first-responders.

During the course of reporting this story, experts shared these tips to help communities stay healthy and engaged during COVID-19: 

  • Practice physical distancing
  • Stay home and avoid nonessential travel
  • Follow CDC and state guidelines for wearing a mask and going into public
  • Get involved in community support groups
  • Follow and contact public officials for information and to express concerns
  • Get tested if exposed and/or if symptoms arise
  • File for unemployment benefits if applicable
  • Reach out to local food banks for assistance
  • Reach out for mental health services if needed
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