Dante Lee is an African American living in San Diego. In early March, he began showing symptoms of COVID-19. As any responsible adult should do, Dante began self isolating. But three days later, as his symptoms began to get worse, he decided to go to a hospital and get tested. The hospital denied him a coronavirus test. This is a familiar story for a lot of African Americans.
“I had the impression I had the virus, and I wanted to confirm it” Dante said. The hospital – Kaizer Permanente San Diego Medical Centre – said he didn’t qualify for a test, since he was showing only some of the symptoms, and they were not severe enough. Forced to return home without help, Dante did the only thing to do – he remained in self isolation and focused on getting better.
“As an African American or a minority, you are used to some level of disparity or discrimination. So I wasn’t motivated to do anything other than boost my immune system,” he said. Going to the police or his representative was out of the question. African Americans have little recourse for justice, in a modern system stacked against them at every point. And without adequate representation in the government (there are just 52 representatives and 3 Senators for around 42 million people), they have little support for policy changes. Once he recovered though, Dante’s father, Irvin Lee, decided to do something about the situation.
The Rona Song
Under the pseudonym of ‘The Undiscovered Artist’ Irvin penned a song – The Rona Song. Created in just two weeks, the song speaks to the confusion, frustration, and disappointment that many are feeling due to the underlying racial bias in American healthcare. Speaking to BlackNews.com, Irvin said “I had to write a song to capture this… My style of writing is heavily influenced by artists like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye who, during their time, created music about the struggles and injustices that many people had to deal with.
“The frustration began when he was denied a test, but it wasn’t until weeks later, when he recovered, that I was able to channel my frustration” Irvin said. As a music producer and writer, Irvin has considerable experience, which he decided to put to use. “Normally I don’t sing,” he said, but motivated by his son’s situation, he decided to go all in.
Officially called the “Coronavirus Song (The Rona Song)” by The Undiscovered Artist, the song can be heard online at https://CoronavirusSong.com and can be streamed on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon Music, Tidal, Google Music Play, and more. Irvin also plans to use some of the profits made from the song to aid other families suffering due to COVID-19. “There’s plenty of places that need help, people are struggling for basic needs.” While the effects of the recession and lack of medical resources are being felt all over the country, minority groups, particularly African Americans are being hit hardest.
African Americans Left Out
Dante’s experience isn’t unique. A study by the nonpartisan AMP Research Lab found that “the latest overall COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Americans is 2.4 times as high as the rate for Whites and 2.2 times as high as the rate for Asians and Latinos.” Based on statistics obtained from 40 states, the study highlights the racial discrimination that is still present in American society. Whilst the issue affects many aspects of African American’s lives, the impact of covid-19 has brought this into sharp focus. The gulf is much wider in some states, like Kansas where black residents are dying at rates seven times the rate of whites. Washington (six times), Michigan and Missouri (five times) all have similarly high rates.
“We know a lot of people from different ethnic backgrounds. But everyone we know, that died from the virus is African American”Irvin Lee
A major reason for this is that minorities make up a larger percentage of those in poverty. The Economist found that “more than 20% (of black people) live in poverty, twice the rate of whites. After a moderate amount of progress was erased by the Great Recession, median black household wealth nationwide is one-tenth that of white households, just as it was 50 years ago.” This has knock on effects that directly hamper their ability to fight the coronavirus.
“Poor people can’t quarantine, they live in tiny houses. So once somebody gets infected, everybody in the neighbourhood can get infected,” Irvin said. All the data points to the fact that while the coronavirus doesn’t discriminate, the American healthcare system does. Kaiser Health News found that “three drive-thru testing centres sat empty for weeks because the city couldn’t acquire the necessary testing equipment and protective gear like gloves and masks. All of them are in diverse neighbourhoods.”
Uché Blackstock, the CEO of Advancing Health Equity told The Guardian: “The disparities are continuing to be reflected in the data, yet we still have a complete lack of guidance from the federal government about how to mitigate these divisions. There is no real plan how to deal with it.” As usual, the Trump administration has blamed other issues, in this case the high incidence among black people of underlying health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity. While co-morbidities are certainly a factor that can increase the chances of death, perfectly healthy people like Dante can also fall severely sick.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
This is a story playing out all over the country. It is true that historically, black communities have always had less access to high quality healthcare. As a result, they are more likely to suffer from issues like diabetes, cardiovascular issues and obesity. The New York Times found that “doctors have been found to have downplayed African-Americans’ complaints of pain, given them weaker pain medication for broken bones and withheld cardiac treatments from black patients who needed them. Research suggests that the decisions are the result of ingrained assumptions, cultural ignorance and hostile attitudes toward African-Americans.”
A 2003 report commissioned by the Congress identified this rising inequality in access to healthcare. The report said that “A large body of published research reveals that racial and ethnic minorities experience a lower quality of health services, and are less likely to receive even routine medical procedures than are white Americans.” It found consistent evidence across a range of illnesses and services.
17 years later, not much has changed. Black Americans like Dante are consistently being turned away at hospitals and health centres. However, as Bob Dylan said – The times they are a changin’. Democrats in the House introduced legislation to compel health officials to break down the deaths by race, daily. In a statement, Senator Elizabeth Warren said: “Because of government-sponsored discrimination and systemic racism, communities of colour are on the frontlines of this pandemic.” Aspects of Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley’s Equitable Data Collection and Disclosure on COVID-19 Act were included in the latest COVID-19 relief package passed in April.
However this is an issue that doesn’t only affect the african american community. While the data should help highlight the disparities between white Americans and other minorities, one group being forgotten entirely are Native Americans. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on its own website states that “Native Americans (American Indians and Alaska Natives) have a greater chance of having diabetes than any other US racial group.” For decades, health programmes for Native Americans have been chronically underfunded, as a result they are woefully underprepared to tackle the coronavirus.
This shows that there is still a long way to go. The inclusion of Congresswoman Pressley’s Act is only the first step. “I think the racial data is important. Because it does help us understand who is most affected and where more funding is needed,” Irvin said. “Without that information, you are just providing help to the general population without realising that some are being affected more than others,” he added. Unless Trump acknowledges this disparity though, African Americans are likely to continue facing discrimination, which is a big challenge with the country on track to get back to work.
Investing in the Future
As America begins reopening its economy, there’s a real concern that the infection rate will spike. Without access to quality healthcare and spaces to isolate, minorities in America face the biggest challenges. The Commonwealth Fund also found that “Black Americans remain more likely to be uninsured than whites.” While the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has helped cut down that disparity, Trump’s push to shut the ACA will have long term implications, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic.
With an election due at the end of the year, African Americans will have a huge choice to make. Racial bias can no longer be just another part of American life, particularly when lives are on the line. “We could be a part of the solution,” Irvin said. A large majority of African Americans are on the frontlines – as nurses, doctors, cleaners and delivery personnel. As more data becomes available, the African American community could become a huge factor in deciding the winner of the 2020 Presidential Election. Taking a line from the song – “Rona has got me on my knees, if you can hear me, help me please”. Hopefully, Donald Trump does.