First published in The Fayetteville Observer on May 5, 2020.
In North Carolina, African Americans make up about 22% of the state but tragically represent almost 40% of those who have tested positive for the disease and 40% of fatalities across the state.
Last weekend, my mother and I discussed the latest news about the novel coronavirus and the illness it causes, COVID-19. I mentioned that African Americans are disproportionately affected by the disease. My mother looked at me with her wise, but tired eyes and asked, “Why us, Pat? Why us?” Indeed, I thought, why us?
As we come to terms with a new reality and the uncertainty of our future, new data confirms that African Americans are disproportionately infected and killed by the disease. In North Carolina, African Americans make up about 22% of the state but tragically represent almost 40% of those who have tested positive for the disease and 40% of fatalities across the state.
African Americans are not more susceptible to COVID-19 than other Americans.
Instead, these grim statistics are the consequence of the realities that have faced African Americans for generations.
We are less likely to have access to health care, adequate health insurance or sick leave, and more likely to have pre-existing conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Social distancing is more difficult because we tend to live in more densely populated areas and more crowded housing conditions. We are more likely to be essential workers with jobs that require personal interactions and more likely to take public transportation to get to those jobs. Taken together, these conditions have worsened otherwise treatable health issues and make COVID-19 harder to defeat.
For too long, our leaders have ignored or discounted health disparities that exist in our communities — COVID-19 is shining a light on them again. It’s time we invest our attention and resources into ensuring every North Carolinian can lead a healthy life.
Too often, I hear my friends and family talk about the health challenges they face, including access to care. As we confront this crisis, and in the years to come, we can take steps to build healthier communities. We have the tools, the resources and the expertise to provide better outcomes for African Americans and, in turn, protect everyone from this disease.
Right now, we can expand access to the Affordable Care Act by reopening the enrollment period so that our friends and neighbors have a chance to get the coverage they need. Congress should provide businesses, large and small, with resources dedicated to providing paid sick leave to employees. As we try to contain this pandemic, no one should be forced to choose between losing a paycheck and putting their coworkers or the public at risk.
Finally, when it comes to COVID-19, all testing and treatment should be free and widely available, not doled out solely to the those with the most money or best insurance. To contain the spread, we should encourage, not discourage, treatment, testing, and tracing. That protects us all.
Many have asserted that COVID-19 affects all of Americans equally and that may be true for those who are infected. I reminded my mother that many have said, “When America catches a cold, African Americans catch pneumonia.” COVID-19 has shown that saying still holds true.
Pat Timmons-Goodson is a former Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina and former member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. She is currently a candidate for the Eighth Congressional District of North Carolina.