Black deaths due to COVID-19 reveal health, economic disparities

The disproportionate percentage of Black deaths in North Carolina due to the coronavirus shines a troubling light on the health and economic disparities between Whites and African American, says state leaders attending a tele-town meeting Wednesday sponsored by the grassroots advocacy organization, Action NC.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed education and housing disparities to the forefront, said Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin.

“Those areas that we know disparities exist are really highlighted at times like this because the first people who are laid off from jobs are those laborers who work by the day, so they’ve been severely impacted by COVID-19,” Colvin said.

He said government must do its part to mitigate the harm.

“We have to embrace that and we have to look within our governmental agencies to find out how we can try to balance the scales,” Colvin said.

There have been 1,290 deaths in North Carolina due to the coronavirus. Blacks are roughly 22 percent of the state’s population but account for 25% of the state’s cases of coronavirus and 37 percent of deaths.

Blacks and Hispanics make up a large share of the state’s frontline workforce, holding many of the essential jobs that cannot be performed from home. As a result, they are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

Conference attendees called on Congress to quickly adopt legislation to increase access to healthcare and to approve a second stimulus package to mitigate the economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t think any of us could have imagined at the beginning of March that at the beginning of July we would be in this state,” said Naomi Randolph-Hwesuhunu, a senior adviser at Action NC and the event’s moderator. “This pandemic has been unpredictable and it’s impacted every segment of our lives, from education to employment, to health care, to our personal well-being, to our mental health.”

Randolph-Hwesuhunu asked participants to call members of Congress, particularly Republican Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, to encourage them to support the HEROES Act that would provide another round of federal COVID-19 relief money, including $1,200 stimulus checks.

“The Heroes Act has money for all of the things you’ve heard about this evening when you think about economic development, as we think about supporting businesses, as we think about sustainable and affordable housing, as we think about all of the things we need to move through this season, we want to make sure the HEROES Act gets passed,” Randolph-Hwesuhunu said

Expanding on Colvin’s comments about chronic health conditions among Black and Hispanics, Michelle Laws, assistant director for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services, said “historically marginalized” populations suffer at higher rates from chronic health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and pulmonary disease that put them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

Tarsha Gunn, who suffers from congestive heart failure, falls into the Medicaid gap.

She urged lawmakers to send help to the millions of Americans who have lost jobs and access to healthcare during the pandemic.

“As you are making bills, please remember that we’re human and we need the help,” said Gunn. “It’s not that we just want the help. We need the help.”

Gunn also encouraged voters to educate themselves about candidates before voting in the November election.

“We need to show up mighty strong and true and vote for these elected officials so that we can see change,” Gunn said.

State Sen. Erica Smith, a Democrat who represents several counties in Eastern North Carolina, noted that two of the six rural counties that she serves made national lists for high infection rates.

“One of them does not have a local hospital, so they [citizens] have to drive to other counties to access health care,” Smith said.

She noted that on Wednesday the Senate approved House Bill 1023 to appropriate $2 billion in federal relief money to increase testing as cases of COVID-19 surge and to address the economic harm caused by the virus.

“We have a difficult task as we look to protect public health,” Smith said. “We also want to balance [that] with reopening the economy in the most effective way for businesses and workers.”

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