Home Health and Health Care The Empathy Gap: Coronavirus is hitting Black communities harder than anyone else. Of course it is.

The Empathy Gap: Coronavirus is hitting Black communities harder than anyone else. Of course it is.

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Reporting coming out of major cities all are saying the same thing: Black people are over-represented in the number of deaths related to COVID-19.

From Louisiana:

Although African Americans account for one-third of Louisiana’s population, they represent more than 70% of the state’s deaths from COVID-19 caused by the virus, according to the data. [source]


About 68% of the city’s deaths have involved African Americans, who make up only about 30% of Chicago’s total population, according to an examination of data from the Cook County medical examiner’s office and the Chicago Department of Public Health. The sobering statistics suggest black Chicagoans are dying at a rate nearly six times greater than white residents. [source]


As of Monday [April 6th], 33 of the 45 residents who died of covid-19 in Milwaukee County were black, according to the medical examiner. That’s 73 percent, though black residents made up fewer than half of the county’s coronavirus infections and about 28 percent of the total county population. [source]


Black people make up over a third of all COVID-19 cases in Michigan, according to data the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services released Saturday. And while black people make up only about 12% of the Michigan’s population, they make up about 40% of all COVID-19 deaths reported. [source]

St. Louis:

Officials said Wednesday that all of the people in the city who’ve died from complications related to COVID-19 were African American. There have been 12 people in St. Louis who have died as of Wednesday. The city now has more than 480 cases of people infected with the coronavirus. [source]

With regard to my city, New York, the numbers for both the Black and Latinx population are clear:

Citing data from New York City’s health department, de Blasio said Latinos — who make up about 29% of the city’s population — represent nearly 34% of the patients who had died of COVID-19 as of Monday. And almost 28% of the city’s 2,472 known deaths were among black people, who represent about 24% of the population. [source]

Why do the numbers look like this? I think I know why.

One of the most illuminating things I’ve ever learned, was about how to identify racism. In any situation, look for the empathy. Empathy, defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” is a core function of humanity—if I can see your pain, it is because I empathize with you. If I can see your struggle, I am empathizing with you in that moment.

Look for the empathy—in what direction does it flow? It rarely flows in the direction of Black people.

White supremacy is about ensuring that resources always flow towards enriching white people, with no regard for the pain this diversion causes others. Racism, in any and all instances, is about justifying why non-white people deserve this lack of resources. You have to ignore the real pain, turn a blind eye to it, in order to feel good about receiving what you did not rightfully earn. You need the apathy, the indifference. You need to justify why you don’t care. The racism is how you do it.

They don’t need good schools—their culture doesn’t value education. Of course it’s okay to imprison their brothers, sons, and fathers—it’s not like they even want to work or even raise their own children. No, it doesn’t matter that they don’t have enough hospitals—they insist on eating that food, so they deserve what they get.

We see something similar to this in health care. It’s a large part of why so many Black women are disappearing from our everyday lives—we are succumbing to the consequences of heart disease at alarming rates, and our doctors can scarcely be bothered to listen to us when we shout about it. To the person who doesn’t want to be bothered enough to care about us, it doesn’t matter that we’re saying we’re hurting. “It’s okay,” they say. “They can take it.”

My greatest fear, it seems, is becoming a reality.

COVID-19 is a disease that requires an immune system response, and predominately Black and Brown communities often lack the resources that support healthy immune systems.

Our communities, regardless of socioeconomic status, are often the ones with the greatest amounts of pollution, which has adverse effects on both immune system response and cardiovascular health. Clean, breathable air has always been in low supply in Black and Brown communities, because ours were decimated in favor of creating highways and roads for those suburbanites who fled the cities for whiter—er, wider spaces.

Remember, the place you’re most likely to find public transit, across the country, is Black and Brown communities. Suburban areas often turn their noses up at public transit; it was associated with the kind of poverty they sought to escape when they left the cities.

Black and Brown communities are also most likely to be what we know as food deserts, environments where there are few—if any—grocery stores selling a standard array of fresh produce. Not just the bodegas that sell bananas and onions in order to qualify for EBT, though they’re important, too—grocery stores, supermarkets, and fruit stands are often in short supply.

Many of the stores that are there often sell produce that is substandard or in poorer quality in order to offer it for cheaper. Because of this, families often tend to spend their money on foods that are shelf-stable and less likely to spoil before they can even use it, not realizing that shelf-stable foods often are higher in sodium and lower in protein, fat, and fiber—three things that are preventive against overeating, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol.

Moreover, Black and Brown communities are most likely to be food swamps, or communities where there are few grocery stores while also hosting an abundance of fast food options. While much of the research correlates the presence of food swamps to obesity rates, I’m far more interested in the correlation between these food swamps and rates of heart disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Unsurprisingly, it tracks.

And, lastly: the communities where Black and Brown people live also often lack sufficient numbers of hospitals and hospital beds to support their care. Recent research from the American Hospital Association notes that 54% of all hospitals in America are located in “urban environments.” 80% of the American population lives in the city. In less affluent communities, be they urban or rural, people are less likely to work jobs that offer health care, health care isn’t affordable enough outside of employer-sponsored care, and even when you do have health care, people can rarely pay the deductible or the co-pay to take advantage of it. The lack of resources to make health care accessible also means hospitals cannot afford to provide services, and ultimately close down, leaving a hospital desert in their wake.

And—not for nothing, but even when we do access care, there’s nothing that guarantees the doctor you see will actually listen to you when you identify your pain.

And if I try to even talk about the stress-related consequences of racism on one’s immune system, well, you’ll likely stop reading.

The lack of empathy shown to our community, the ease with which we are blamed for obvious policy failures, is killing us. The empathy gap is swallowing us whole.

The commentary that blames “metabolic syndrome”—the trifecta of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity—for the Black COVID-19 mortality rate is little more than a passive aggressive way of blaming us for what are obvious policy failures. Rates for all three diseases are too high regardless of racial background, but when one group has insurance they can afford to use, can afford prescriptions to treat their conditions, has hospitals and doctors close by who they can see regularly without “losing hours off their check,” has access to fresh produce, and has clean air to inhale? It’s time to acknowledge that people are dying because of selfish, racist policy that starves communities and kills loved ones.

A health care system that is based on serving the people who are most likely to be able to pay, is a health care system that will never target its services towards the poor, whom are predominantly Black and Brown. Are there outliers? Absolutely. But they are outliers—not the standard. The health care of the poor is based on charity, the voluntary giving of help to those in need.

We’ve been in need for decades—in need of cleaner air, in need of more accessible care, in need of grocery stores, in need of policy that reflects and respects us as human beings—and no one listened before.

While our politicians all feign shock at the discrepancies in outcomes for Black and Brown people, pretending that we haven’t been dying at rates far higher than our white peers for years, the empathy gap has grown so large that our loved ones are falling into it. We’ve been shouting for a long time. Maybe now, they’ll finally listen.

And, if they don’t, replace them.

Photo credit: Flickr / 401(k)2012

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