Coronavirus Hits Communities Of Color Harder -- Beyond The Case Numbers & Death Toll

Apr 28, 2020

Covid-19 is hitting people of color, especially African American communities, much harder than white communities.  The impact shows up as both a higher percentage of positive cases and a higher number of deaths from the disease.  But there’s also a different kind of price that people of color are likely to pay.

African-Americans make up only 22 percent of the population in North Carolina, but they account for almost 40% of the positive cases in the state.  And they represent more than a third of the death toll.  That’s according to statistics from the state Department of Health and Human Services

Joe Conway is Director of Health Equity and Human Experience at New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

"There is a disproportionate number of African-Americans identified as having Covid-positive cases -- 2.4 times more likely to happen within the African American community and to be identified as having -- being Covid-positive. And then when you look at the deaths that are happening at the state level, you're 2.1 times more likely to die."

While NHRMC serves seven counties in southeastern North Carolina, Conway says New Hanover County’s numbers do not yet reflect a racial disparity.

"When I look at the New Hanover County numbers, the sense of just a touch of pride, not much, is that our numbers are fairly flat. The disparities between the populations is almost, I mean they're almost equivalent."

But two cautionary notes:  the Hispanic population is about two times more likely to be Covid-positive inside New Hanover County, and the sample is currently so small – 79 cases as of Tuesday and three deaths – that it’s not statistically reliable. 

Racial disparity, Conway says, is rearing its ugly head in other ways.

"When you think about what's going on in our school system and how it's impacting the affluent versus those that are not, and communities not having internet access -- or how is it going to affect the education of some of the students in our County and surrounding areas?"

Sean Bynum is Operations Director of Step Up Wilmington, a local nonprofit that helps people get past barriers to employment – like a lack of skills, no diploma, a criminal record, or an extended period without a job.   He says about half of Step Up’s clients are white.  About half are African-American.

"And what we're seeing here on a local level and even on a state level, is that the most impoverished communities, the most under-resourced, marginalized and the areas that have food inadequacies, food insecurities, are populated by African Americans."

Deborah Dicks Maxwell is President of the New Hanover County Chapter of the NAACP.  She says it’s much harder for people in food deserts to get healthy food during good times.  During a pandemic, it’s even harder.

"If you're on the North side, your closest grocery store is four miles out to Wrightsboro to even get food. So you need a ride or have to have a vehicle. Also, it’s an issue if someone's receiving supplemental assistance, SNAP, you know that they have to go when the stamps are there."

Sean Bynum: 

"If I cannot go walk outside of my neighborhood or drive within the next couple of minutes and get to a grocery store, but I can access a convenience store that’s filled with Snickers and sugary sodas and chips and all of those things, what am I going to access? And they're cheaper than healthy food."

A poor diet can contribute to the chronic conditions that already disproportionately affect African-Americans.  And those are the same conditions the CDC says make a person more likely to die from Covid-19. 

And there’s another vulnerability that people who live in poverty face.  Sean Bynum of Step Up Wilmington says many people in poverty also happen to be the essential workers – those people who must go to work.

"They're providing services such as garbage assistance or working in grocery stores and things of that nature."

NHRMC’s Joe Conway says the frontline healthcare workers are heroes, and, yes, that absolutely includes medical staff -- but there others. 

"Who's cleaning the room? Well, those are environmental services techs that are cleaning those rooms, whether the patient had Covid or not. Who's feeding the patients?

"I do think of the technicians that have to take blood. Think about our stores right now where a lot of those jobs, those frontline jobs are often held by people that are at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. And a lot of them are people of color. A lot of them are women."

And how do they protect themselves? Well, it varies – a lot, according to Sean Bynum.

"Some organizations are not only mandating that their employees wear masks and gloves; they’re providing those resources, but other organizations are not providing those resources. So I cannot say across the board that they have been taken care of because if you're leaving it up to your employees that are already underpaid to provide resources that they can't afford or may not even have access to because everyone needs them."

The NAACP’s Deborah Dicks Maxwell says she has seen an even more troubling trend.

"And managers will tell the clerks not to wear a mask. People don't realize that they're not wearing a mask because they want their job."

NHRMC’s Joe Conway has heard it, too.

"I was on a call earlier last week where a store here locally was telling their employees not to wear a mask and / or gloves when coming in contact with the public because the management was afraid that it would scare the customers away."

While some people might simply refuse to work under those conditions, Conway points out that many of those in frontline positions don’t have a choice.

"But then you need the income. You have rent. You have, you know, utilities, you have to put food on the table for your children. So they're being put in a very precarious position and not given the due respect and support that they need from their management system."

He qualifies that – as does Deborah Dicks Maxwell – by saying they’ve seen some improvement locally.

Support is coming from other places, though. Sean Bynum says a group of black fraternities and sororities have organized to deliver food and supplies to housing communities that some retailers and restaurants will not serve – for example Houston Moore and Creekwood.

Deborah Dicks Maxwell says other members of the black community have organized to sew masks for people.  And she says she’s glad to see New Hanover County making a special effort to get the word out to communities of color. 

"The County has changed their messaging. They made it a little better… Buncombe County has got it going on in terms of messaging."

But for Sean Bynum, the challenge is finding the best ways to help people who are out of work and out of a paycheck.

"Out of our participants at Step Up Wilmington, 38% of them have been impacted dramatically by Covid-19. Their employment has been affected in some way. 21% have lost their jobs."

As the state and the region re-open, and with the peak in cases expected sometime in the next couple of weeks, Joe Conway says he’ll be watching closely to see if there are flare-ups and whether a greater racial disparity begins to emerge.