BREAKING NEWS : Full Story

Black Americans are being hammered by a double pandemic

NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson says black and minority communities need to take the Covid-19 pandemic seriously and points out the institutional difficulties that are putting urban communities at higher risk.

Posted: Apr 13, 2020 5:41 PM
Updated: Apr 13, 2020 5:41 PM

It started off as a strange-sounding disease that only other folks were getting.

But then it hit black people with a sudden ferocity. Many of the victims died alone, separated from family. Hospital workers were bewildered. The virus was unstoppable.

That's what Pernessa Seele saw when AIDS first devastated the black community in the late 1980s. She worked then as an immunologist at a Harlem hospital.

She's seeing a similar pattern now as the coronavirus ravages African American communities in Chicago, New York, Detroit, New Orleans and other places. For blacks, already more likely to die from HIV/AIDS than any other group in America, it's a double pandemic -- two lethal and incurable viruses hitting at once.

"This coronavirus is treacherous, and it is relentless," says Seele, founder and CEO of The Balm in Gilead, Inc., a nonprofit that works with faith communities to eliminate health disparities. "It doesn't care if you have HIV. It'll fight with HIV for you -- two viruses for the control of your death."

It's too early to know how many Americans with HIV are dying of coronavirus. But the prospect of both incurable diseases racing through black neighborhoods is causing some black activists and health officials to shudder.

"It makes the specter of Covid-19 even more frightening," says Gregorio Millett, a vice-president and director of public policy for amfAR, Foundation for AIDS Research. "It places just one more additional burden It could be devastating."

Being black can be bad for your health

"When whites catch a cold, black folks get pneumonia."

That's a folk saying in the black community that reflects a historical pattern: Whenever a disease afflicts America, it hits black America even harder.

Black people are more likely than other Americans to have underlying health issues like diabetes, heart disease and lung disease. Blacks also are statistically more likely to live in poverty, with less access to health insurance. And more are mistrustful of health care providers.

This helps explain why blacks have been disproportionately victimized by HIV and AIDS. African Americans make up 13% of the US population but accounted for 42% of new HIV diagnoses in the United States in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People are now living longer with HIV because of advances in treatment and medication, but many blacks can't afford those treatments or don't live in places where they are readily available, says Seele, from the Balm of Gilead.

"People are living longer with HIV, but if you don't have access to treatment you ain't living longer," she says.

Underlying health issues and limited access to treatment also partly explain why so many coronavirus victims are black. In Chicago, an estimated 72% of Covid-19 deaths have been among blacks, who make up just 30% of the city's population.

"We are at the top of the totem pole when it comes to disparities," says Bishop O.C. Allen III, an activist and founder of the Vision Church of Atlanta. Allen, who has hypertension, said he recently spent eight days in isolation in the hospital recovering from the coronavirus.

HIV can make the coronavirus more deadly

The prevalence of HIV infections also makes coronavirus an especially lethal disease in the black community. HIV breaks down its victims' immune system, and the coronavirus is particularly deadly for people with weakened immune systems.

For one, people with HIV are more likely to develop Type II diabetes, says Dr. Marjorie Innocent, senior director of health programs at the NAACP.

"The reality is that HIV can also increase the risk of developing other chronic conditions that increase the likelihood of complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus," Innocent says.

When asked if she could recall another time when the black community faced two deadly pandemics simultaneously, Innocent paused before answering.

"Two incurable viruses hitting the African-American population at the same time? I can't say that I do."

Some community leaders are worried the coronavirus is already hampering the battle against HIV and AIDS.

"With this coronavirus, people might be afraid [to go to a hospital or clinic] to get an HIV test," says Allen, the activist.

If few black Americans are getting tested for HIV or the coronavirus, you could potentially have infected people unknowingly spreading both diseases through the community.

Says Allen, "It creates the perfect storm of disproportionate numbers."

There are reasons for hope

When compared to the HIV pandemic, there are some reasons for optimism about stopping the spread of the coronavirus in the black community.

For one, there was a stigma attached to victims of AIDS -- especially back in the 1980s, in the early days of the virus -- that does not exist with people diagnosed with the coronavirus.

Many blacks are being exposed to Covid-19 because they hold service jobs, as grocery clerks or bus drivers or nurse's aides, and don't have the privilege of working from home. Americans today are praising the courage of these workers, not vilifying them as many once did with AIDS patients.

"President Trump has called this a war against the virus, and those are the people who are on the front lines," says Allen, the activist. "We are the ones who are delivering goods, working the cash register. We're out there."

In addition, many of the public health officials now leading the nation's battle against Covid-19, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, are the same people who helped reduce the AIDS death toll, Millett says.

"That's the silver lining," Millett says. "We've been successful in turning around one of the major epidemics of our lifetime, which is HIV. We've done this before."

But some things will need to change

But for such efforts to have a chance at success, experts say we will need more data on the coronavirus' impact on black patients.

This is why the NAACP and other groups are calling for more hospitals and public health officials to release a racial and ethnic breakdown of coronavirus victims, Innocent says. Up until now, that information has been spotty.

"It's very troubling that it's taken this long for data showing the disproportionate impact on African Americans to be released," Innocent says.

Some also are concerned that even when health officials beat back the coronavirus, blacks will be the last to benefit because they won't have access to quick testing and advanced treatments.

"Even when we need these new innovations, the communities that need them the most won't get them," Millett says. "You see this over and over again."

Until more black Americans rise out of poverty and get better medical care, they will continue to be at the mercy of pandemics like AIDS and Covid-19, black activists and health care leaders say.

If that happens, it'll be a grim replay of what Seele saw from the front lines of the AIDS epidemic -- and something she now dreads.

"The death toll will continue to rise in the black community," she says. "We'll be left out again."

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 48524

Reported Deaths: 2698
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion11682684
Lake5180242
Elkhart330146
Allen2798132
St. Joseph196466
Cass16389
Hamilton1563101
Hendricks1410100
Johnson1288118
Porter73237
Tippecanoe7268
Madison65964
Clark65544
Bartholomew58644
LaPorte58026
Howard57757
Kosciusko5494
Vanderburgh5486
Marshall4904
Noble48228
Jackson4723
LaGrange4709
Hancock45035
Boone44543
Delaware44550
Shelby42625
Floyd38144
Morgan32931
Monroe30028
Grant29526
Montgomery29420
Clinton2892
Henry27415
Dubois2736
White26510
Decatur25032
Lawrence24625
Dearborn23823
Vigo2358
Harrison21822
Warrick21829
Unassigned193193
Greene18932
Miami1832
Jennings17611
Putnam1698
DeKalb1624
Scott1627
Daviess14317
Wayne1406
Orange13623
Perry1299
Steuben1292
Franklin1248
Jasper1212
Ripley1177
Wabash1122
Carroll1102
Fayette997
Newton9810
Starke933
Whitley925
Gibson812
Huntington812
Randolph794
Wells731
Fulton721
Jefferson722
Jay680
Washington671
Pulaski661
Knox640
Clay604
Rush583
Adams501
Owen491
Benton480
Sullivan451
Posey420
Brown391
Spencer381
Blackford372
Crawford320
Fountain322
Tipton321
Switzerland270
Parke230
Martin220
Ohio170
Vermillion140
Warren141
Union130
Pike110

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 57956

Reported Deaths: 2927
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin10410429
Cuyahoga7883373
Hamilton6019198
Lucas2752302
Marion273438
Pickaway219741
Summit2143206
Montgomery203427
Mahoning1832232
Butler159944
Columbiana130760
Stark1123112
Lorain103567
Trumbull96770
Warren86021
Clark7669
Delaware58215
Fairfield57216
Tuscarawas56710
Belmont54922
Medina52332
Lake50018
Licking49312
Miami46631
Portage44258
Ashtabula43544
Wood42851
Clermont4146
Geauga40742
Wayne36351
Richland3455
Allen32141
Mercer2829
Greene2589
Darke25125
Erie24422
Holmes2363
Huron2202
Madison1978
Ottawa14923
Sandusky13614
Crawford1355
Washington13520
Putnam12815
Ross1273
Hardin12312
Morrow1161
Coshocton1112
Auglaize1074
Monroe8917
Jefferson882
Union861
Muskingum831
Hancock791
Hocking788
Guernsey743
Preble731
Lawrence710
Williams712
Clinton680
Shelby684
Logan621
Fulton610
Ashland591
Athens591
Carroll593
Wyandot596
Brown571
Defiance513
Knox511
Fayette460
Highland451
Scioto410
Champaign401
Perry351
Van Wert350
Seneca342
Henry300
Paulding250
Adams241
Jackson230
Pike230
Vinton222
Gallia181
Harrison121
Meigs120
Morgan110
Noble110
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Clear
86° wxIcon
Hi: 80° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 92°
Angola
Clear
90° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 90°
Huntington
Broken Clouds
83° wxIcon
Hi: 90° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 86°
Decatur
Clear
77° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 79°
Van Wert
Clear
77° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 79°
Hot Wednesday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events