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Black Communities Are Hit Hardest By COVID-19 In Louisiana And Elsewhere

Chris Granger
Former King Zulu Larry Hammond at his home in Algiers in 2007. Hammond died of COVID-19.

Louisiana has the highest rate of deaths from COVID-19 in the nation and, according to Gov. John Bel Edwards, more than 70 percent of the people who have died so far were black.

Black people make up just 32 percent of the state's population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The governor shared this statistic in his daily press conference Monday afternoon, several hours after this story originally published. 

Elroy James is the president of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, a center of black culture in New Orleans. Just a little over a month ago he was riding high in Zulu’s Mardi Gras morning parade, kissing babies and shaking hands. A month later, twenty of his club brothers have been hospitalized and five are dead.

What makes it even worse, James said, is, “We are not able to honor the lives of these guys the way we would have traditionally done.”

Because of restrictions on public gatherings, they cannot hold traditional jazz funerals or second lines. All he can do is console families over the phone and pray for them.

Louisiana District 2 Congressman Cedric Richmond is following the issue closely and wants the CDC to release more information about the racial makeup of fatalities.

“There's no doubt that it's going to impact African-American communities and poor communities worst,” Richmond said.

He himself has lost a number of friends. One of them is in the hospital.

“He just sounded defeated,” Richmond said.

Another is a former lawmaker who is recuperating. Both are black.

“It is depressing.”

COVID-19 is killing black people in large numbers. In Chicago, which has a much smaller black population thank New Orleans, 70 percent of the people who have died of COVID-19 so far were black, according to WBEZ. Milwaukee is seeing similar a trend.

Lawmakers around the country say it's communities of color getting hit hardest. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-CA), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust, have urged the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to collect racial and ethnic demographic data related to the coronavirus.

In Louisiana, there are a lot of reasons why black people are more at-risk of dying from COVID-19, including preexisting conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and coronary heart disease. These disproportionately impact the black community, largely because of poverty and a lack of access to services — problems that stem from hundreds of years of systemic racism.

As of last week, 40 percent of people who died from COVID-19 in Louisiana had diabetes, 25 percent experienced obesity, and 23 percent had kidney diseases.

When this story was first published Monday morning, the state had not yet shared data on race and coronavirus. New Orleans Public Radio had requested it repeatedly.

The Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) tracks information about the race of COVID-19 fatalities, but a spokesperson initially said it’s too hard to break the data out. 

The LDH sent this statement: “The Louisiana Department of Health agrees that demographic information about COVID-19 patients is an important component of responding effectively to the coronavirus crisis, and we have been working to produce reliable, consistent reports that would identify this data.”

Allison Plyer, chief demographer at The Data Center, has also requested this data from the state.

“We have to understand who is really being affected most by this pandemic,” she said.

She added that data on race is on death certificates, so it should be easy for the LDH to provide it.

Those numbers could affect which communities get help, and how much.

Joia Crear Perry is a doctor and researcher who founded the National Birth Equity Collaborative. She studies health trends and started paying attention when some of the first deaths in New Orleans were two black men in their 50s. She said her friends and family members were somewhat shocked by that fact, “Because if you think about the image that we've seen of who should die from COVID-19, we've thought of that as older, elderly, frail, white people. That's the image we're getting from around the globe.”

But in a state where at least 8 percent of people don’t have health insurance — a number that is even higher in black, Latinx and Vietnamese communities — people might be reluctant to go to the hospital if they don't think the illness is very serious. There are also many people who have preexisting conditions that they don't know about because they never go to the doctor.

“At the end of the day,” Richmond said, “this is not some academic study, this is a life or death issue . And once and for all I hope this gives us the momentum to tackle health disparities across the board.”

Across the country, this pandemic is exacerbating existing inequities. People who don't have white-collar jobs that let employees work from home might be stuck going in to work, or without a job and with no way to pay rent.

Plyer said as the nation moves forward from this, it really needs to rebuild more equitably, “Or else we will have a large portion of our society that is susceptible to these kinds of shocks.”

For his part, Elroy James will continue to support his Zulu community as they navigate this devastating time. When it’s all over, they plan to throw a big party for the folks who have been lost.

“We are going to put on something big and grand as we do,” James said, “and it will certainly be a celebration of life.”

This story has been updated throughout.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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