While Coronavirus has created unprecedented challenges for people across America (and the world at that), certain communities within the country have bear the brunt of its damage. It wouldn’t appear that a disease would discriminate on the basis of race or individuals socio-economic status but this virus has disproportionately affected the black community, as African Americans’ have died from COVID-19 at nearly “double their share of the U.S. population” (Dion Rabouin, 2020). I coined the term “Black Syndemic” to refer to the intersection of racism and COVID, and how these two ailments together have exposed the pervasive racist and classist disparities and their lingering effects on the black, rendering this marginalized group particularly vulnerable to the pandemic. While examining the Black syndemic, I have opted to use the power resource theory to form a theoretical foundation for the study. The theory will help shade light on why some people have been affected more by the pandemic than others. In this paper I hope to learn more about how anti-blackness, poverty and racism in the medical field and the US government, as well as how class vulnerability and accessibility all created the pathway for COVID to disproportionately impact the black community, especially individuals falling under low socio-economic status. As Coronavirus is still ravaging the world, the impact of this disease on the black community is a continually evolving study. I hope to push the needle forward in this discourse, and contribute to academic discussion relating to systematic / structural anti-blackness in the U.S. at large especially through the examination of power distribution and political ideologies with the U.S.
Power resource theory is a political theory that is grounded on the notion that the dissemination of power between the chief classes in the society is a significant cause of the successes and failures of different political ideologies (David, 2019). The theory can be employed in examining the success and failure of varied political ideologies in the US. Also, the theory is very instrumental in examining why the Black syndemic is still on the rise. Moreover, understanding why the blacks and the poor have been more affected by coronavirus than the whites can be explained using the theory of power resource.
To understand the current state of COVID-19 and the Black syndemic, it is critical to have historical insight into the treatment of black bodies by the North American government. Black and Brown bodies have continually been treated as disposable (ie. Rogers, 2014), and this has been exemplified by incidents like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. In 1932, over 600 black men were enrolled in an experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service, in which doctors administered syphilis and allowed the disease to ravage the subjects’ bodies. Even after a cure for the virus was discovered, all subjects were barred from treatment, and lied to about the treatment they were receiving. Many men went “blind or insane,” experienced additional health problems due to syphilis going untreated, or died. This was not a misstep or an oversight, but a purposeful act to use black men as lab rats, and created an understandable mistrust and consternation towards the administration (Nix, 2017). The blacks have been mistreated majorly because of poverty and the prevailing political ideologies which categorizes the blacks and people of color as the minority groups. Research on theories of poverty, particularly the power resources theory asserts that collective political actors mobilize the less advantaged groups of people around shared interests and ideology. David (2019) claims that the mobilization of the less disadvantaged class is imperative in the analysis of poverty from a sociological perspective since the distribution of power with a capitalist democracy is often in favor of the elite groups or rather the upper class. Moreover, the theory holds the claim that default power advantage contributes to default high level of inequality (David and Dirlam 2016).
In a more recent instance, the killings of myriad innocent black bodies at the hands of the police have been ignored, covered up, and often, ignored by the country’s justice systems. Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, and Atatiania Jefferson, are only a few of the guiltless victims of violent anti-blackness by the hands of America’s alleged protectors. Coupled with a President who continually supports white supremacy and disregards the black communities pain, these proceedings have taught the black community that the US government, whether it be on the federal, state, or often, even local level, are not working in our best interest. Coronavirus mandates, while important, can easily be perceived as yet another form of manipulation from an abusive governing body. This is far from anti-maskers utilizing conspiracies or abilistic language, but instead, a victimized group who no longer has faith in the words of its authority. The Black community has historically relied on themselves to survive, and Coronavirus has exploited this rift between a marginalized peoples and their governing body. Even though the United States is a democratic nation, the distribution of resources during the ongoing pandemic has not been fair hence the increased cases of COVID-19 attacks on the minority groups compared to the white majority communities (David and Dirlam 2016).
With this historical context in mind, it is important to explore the literature and research of previous scholars in the field. Many of whom have discussed the interplay of race and disease vulnerability. A study published in the Annals of Epidemiology scientific journal displayed that “counties with higher proportions of black residents had more COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths. COVID-19 deaths were higher in disproportionally black rural and small metro counties” (Millet, 2020). Some scholars posit that these disparities have been created due to “racism and its manifestations,” which, include “political gerrymandering, [a] lack of Medicaid expansion, poverty, employment discrimination, and health care provider bias” (Poteat, 2020). In a similar perspective, other scholars continue by stating that it is “commonplace that the very institutions responsible for protecting and serving… Black Americans have often been at the helm of such brutality” (Roger, 2014). The blacks are mainly discriminated because of power inequality and improper distribution of resources in the United States which make the poor continue to remain poor as they receive ineffective treatment in sectors such as education and healthcare (David, 2019). As new statistics and data come out, scholarly discourse on the Black Syndemic will continue to be added to the lexicon, allowing for a more holistic picture on such a prevalent and visceral issue.
In my analysis, I will attribute 3 main causes to the Black Syndemic. In addition to the aforementioned historical context and mistrust of the US government, I will address: racism in the medical field, class vulnerability, and accessibility. In a survey conducted by the Association of American Medical Colleges more than “half of white medical trainees believe such myths as black people have thicker skin or less sensitive nerve endings than white people (Sabin 2020). This study alone symbolizes a disconnect between black patients and their healthcare providers, an indication of the inequality political ideologies which contribute to African-Americans being more hesitant to visit doctors and other health care professionals. Similarly, even when black patients do visit doctors, their pain and struggles are often invalidated. As seen in the case of Amy Mason-Cooley, a black woman, her doctor denied her appropriate care and treatment for sickle cell, merely chalking up her pain as an exaggeration, and something that she was tough enough to endure (Rao, 2020). When a pandemic hits, these trepidations don’t subside, but put Black Americans in an unusual predicament, sandwiched between a deathly virus and deathly racism. It is apparent that racism plays a critical role in the unfair treatment that the African Americans are receiving, however, it should also be noted that the situation has worsened due to unequal power distribution between the blacks and the whites (Christopher, 2018). In addition to this, the problem is only aggravated by a lack of representation in the medical field, as African Americans “comprise 13% of Americans but only 4% of U.S. physicians” (Rao, Flores, 2007). Racist medical ideology, coupled with a lack of representation makes medical help and advice inaccessible, especially during a pandemic, and this is without considering the higher rates of pre-existing conditions in black and brown communities.
COVID-19 alone has the potential to take the lives of healthy able bodies, but has a significantly higher likelihood of taking the ive of someone with comorbidities. Poteat writes that, “counties with higher proportions of black people have higher prevalence of comorbidities and greater air pollution”(Poteat, 2020). Melissa Creary, a PDH at the University of Michigan School of Public health is quoted saying that “Black Americans have higher rates of hypertension, diabetes and obesity” (Imhoff 2020). Having asthma, hypertension, or immuno-compromising conditions in coordination with COVID are lethal, similar to the syndemic. Yet again, this problem is compounded by another obstacle, a lack of access to healthcare. Even with the ACA (Affordable Care Act), black people are significantly less likely to have healthy insurance (Imhoff 2020). This is statistically proven through a country by country analysis: “The population attributable fraction of COVID-19 diagnosis due to lack of health insurance was 3.3% for counties with less than 13% black residents and 4.2% for counties with greater than or equal to 13% black residents” (Poteat, 2020). David (2019) notes that the power resource approach concentrates not only on the direct consequences of power but also the indirect consequences. The inequality within the healthcare sector is a clear representation of the indirect consequences of less power among the blacks compared to the whites.
When acknowledging the intersections of race and class, it is important to discuss who is on the front lines during the pandemic. Christopher (2018) asserts that poverty is lower in wealthy democracies where the Left parties have controlled the federal government, unionization is higher and women have a greater share within the ruling government. A good example is in Latin America during the duration of stable democracy whereby the leftist governments led to lower poverty and generous social policies. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation has not been the same compared to the Latin America during the stable democracy period. While many affluent white collar workers are able to stay at home and work from a distance (or take off time completely), black laborers are often forced to face coronavirus head on since they are fighting for survival due to poverty. Valerie Wilson, who directs the EPIS’s (Economic Policy Institute’s) Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy, states that “Given the disproportionate representation of black workers in front-line occupations where they face greater risk of exposure to COVID-19, it is not surprising that illness and deaths are disproportionately found among black workers and their families.” While many Americans were able to take refuge, even vacation in a time of national crisis, black folk were forced to risk their lives for the survival of the upper class.
While less statistically quantifiable, another notable factor in the disproportionate impact of COVID is location and spatial geography. Black and brown people often live in highly populated and underserved areas. Predominantly black and brown neighborhoods are often home to “food deserts,” which are defined by the USDA as a neighborhood with “low incomes, inadequate access to transportation, and a limited number of food retailers providing fresh produce and healthy groceries for affordable prices.” Similarly, these same neighborhoods have a lack of space to adequate social distance, creating highly dangerous super-spreading environments. Findings from Christopher (2018) shows that there is a direct relationship between economic inequality and politics. Income inequality and wealth inequality data clearly shows that politics is pervasive and that political and economic changes are indistinguishably related (Christopher, 2018).
With suggestions to alleviate this problem in mind, the approach needs to be two fold. Firstly, it is important to provide as many resources as possible to underserved or rather poor communities. Medical attention from physicians of color, testing locations accessible by foot, CARES act stimulus checks, and a variety of other measures must be immediately implemented. Secondly, and with more of a long term focus, the United States must confront its abusive and racist past head on. There is need for power and resources to be shared equally with major emphasis on the low socio economic communities. COVID-19 has taken the inequalities and injustices that many attempted to swipe under a rug and exposed them to the world. Long-lasting residue including redlining, the Jim Crow era, and slavery are still significantly impacting communities of color. America is still to blame for the injustices allowed against its own people, and until these horrendous events of the past are addressed, they will continue to affect the future.