It was the last day of March this year. My family and I had been in lockdown for the better half of a month, the beginning of which had been self-imposed. Masks were not yet required or even recommended, except for medical professionals. I had hardly left my two-bedroom apartment in New York City for over two weeks. And when I did, it was to get my two small daughters some outdoor time in a city park where we stayed at least six feet away from other cooped-up city-dwellers trying to get some fresh air. Admittedly, keeping a safe social distance was impossible at times on narrow city sidewalks and park paths.
Then one night as I was putting my 5 and 8-year-old daughters to sleep, I felt a sudden simultaneous onslaught of aches, chills, and fever—symptoms I’d heard so much about in those who had contracted COVID-19. I was immediately petrified lying between my two little girls on their bed that night; I feared the good-night kisses I had given them moments before could have been a kind of kiss of death—especially for my youngest daughter who has a history of chronic bronchitis and pneumonia related to a heart condition.
I swiftly quarantined myself in my bedroom for two weeks, relied on my healthcare and social support systems, and despite it being the longest and scariest two weeks of my life, I survived without developing serious symptoms. (Note: my case of COVID-19, although diagnosed by a doctor, was unconfirmed due to a shortage of tests in NYC at the time.)
One night during those two weeks, I came terrifyingly close to not being able to breathe due to congestion—staying awake all night sipping warm water and hot tea, elevating my head and chest, and following life-saving protocols to keep the fluid constantly streaming into my throat from blocking my airway. I developed a strange rash that my doctor said he’d never seen before. During those two weeks, I’ll admit that I cried alone in my room more than once, and my heart nearly broke in two watching my mask-wearing children cry and stretch out their arms for me at the threshold of my room night after night.
At the same time, I was acutely aware that just a few blocks from my apartment in a major NYC hospital hundreds of critically-ill patients were fighting for their lives. Some waiting to be admitted to the emergency room; some waiting days on end in hospital hallways to get admitted; many never making it out of those hospital hallways and dying alone there, or finally making it to the ICU and getting intubated, only to die there—far from their loved ones who longed to hold their hands and say good-bye. Then came the images of the deceased being loaded into refrigerated trucks outside that same hospital due to the morgues being overloaded by the sheer volume of deaths.
This was all happening within a five-minute walk from my comfortable quarantine-bedroom where I had regular virtual visits with my doctor; health insurance that fully covered those visits; economic privilege allowing me to take almost two weeks off work to rest; nourishing and plentiful food; access to clean, filtered water; and physical proximity to medical supports and facilities like health labs, drug stores, pharmacies, and one of the city’s most reputable hospitals.
It took several weeks for my body to return to full health after my two-week quarantine ended. Meanwhile I began hearing stories from friends and neighbors about those they had lost to COVID-19. I started noticing that not one of my white friends, colleagues, neighbors, or family members had lost a loved one due to coronavirus. Even in the epicenter of the outbreak in New York City, not one white person I know has lost someone close to them. Only one of them has relayed that someone they know has been hospitalized due COVID-19. In contrast, nearly all of the people of color I know in the city—especially the Black and Latinx people I know—have friends and loved ones who have died from coronavirus.
Systemic Racism and COVID-19
The disparity between the percentage of white people versus people of color who are hospitalized per capita in the U.S. due to COVID-19 is staggering. Note this data from the CDC: “Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put some members of racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting COVID-19 or experiencing severe illness, regardless of age.”
- Non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native persons have a rate approximately 5 times that of non-Hispanic white persons,
- non-Hispanic black persons have a rate approximately 5 times that of non-Hispanic white persons,
- Hispanic or Latino persons have a rate approximately 4 times that of non-Hispanic white persons.
[Click on image to enlarge]
The CDC concludes that “Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups are at Increased Risk During COVID-19.” They point to “inequities in living, working, health, and social conditions that have persisted across generations” as underlying these risk factors which they outline as the result of systemic racism and the stigma inherent in such an unjust, inequitable system. According to the CDC, these risk factors include but are not limited to
- living in over-crowded housing (e.g., racially segregated housing, tribal reservations, and multi-family households)
- lack of complete plumbing (such as in a large number of reservation homes)
- living a great distance from grocery stores (known as “food deserts”) and medical centers
- lacking safe and reliable transportation, or relying solely on public transportation
- being over-represented in jails, prisons, homeless shelters, and detention centers
- working in essential industries (health care, grocery stores, meat-packing plants, etc)
- no paid sick leave
- inequities in employment, income, and education
- lack of health insurance
- chronic health conditions related to chronic, toxic stress (i.e., asthma, obesity, and high blood pressure)
- distrust of the healthcare system, language barriers, or cost of missing work to receive medical care
It has been widely documented that “in states where Black communities make up only a relatively small portion of the population, nearly half—if not majority—of all COVID-19 deaths are members of the Black community.” In New York City where there is a relatively large Black population, both CBS and ABC News reported the story of a 30-year-old Brooklyn educator named Rana “Zoe” Mungin who fought for her life despite being denied testing for COVID-19 multiple times by a Brooklyn hospital.
Zoe’s sister, who is a registered nurse, documented her struggle to get adequate medical care on social media while her sister was suffering from debilitating symptoms including difficulty breathing. She wrote how Zoe was misdiagnosed by an EMT as “having a panic attack [when] she kept saying, ‘I can’t breathe.'” Despite finally being admitted to the hospital, a month later Zoe Mungin’s sister wrote that “she fought a long fight but her body was too weak,” and she succumbed to the virus. Her sister commented how Zoe’s story illustrates how “racism and health disparities . . . still continue . . . . The zip code in which we live still predetermines the type of care we receive.” ABC News further noted that
[Zoe’s] case echoes startling data released by the CDC showing that African Americans are being severely impacted by COVID-19 nationwide, accounting for 30% of coronavirus cases in the U.S. despite only comprising approximately 13% of the population.
[Zoe] was a first-generation college student who received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Wellesley College and later earned a Master of Fine Arts from The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in Creative Writing. . . . “She died not only because of COVID-19, but because we live in a world that is racist and anti-black,” her friend for more than a decade, Nohemi Maciel, told ABC News. “We know that black people are dying at disproportionate rates. This cannot be left out of the conversation.” . . .
Lauren Calihman, who met Mungin during her freshman year at Wellesley College, said that people who live in areas where city hospitals are underfunded are implicitly being told that “their lives don’t matter, that they don’t matter.”
“Imagine if Zoe had received treatment consistent with the severity of her symptoms, rather than receiving treatment consistent with her origins,” said Calihman.
Wellesley College President Dr. Paula Johnson . . . called the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black and Latinx families a “moral and systemic failure.”
“For Zoe,” . . . Calihman said, “I can only hope her story ignites sweeping change.”
A Call to Action for White People
As a white person in the U.S., I have recently been confronted by my own complicity in the systemic racism in my country. I’m ashamed to say that until the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations and uprisings related to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I wasn’t aware of how complicit I have been through my silence and inaction regarding systemic racism. I have signed an occasional online petition, donated money after a racially-motivated tragedy makes national news, occasionally read about and watched movies seeking to raise awareness about systemic racism and the white supremacy it upholds. I’ve clicked on emotionally-gripping social media posts and showed up to major elections and felt like I was doing enough.
However, I have too often stayed silent in the predominantly white spaces I am a part of. I have rested on my white privilege and centered my feelings and the feelings of my white peers to stay comfortable. My shocked reaction to the recent murders by police of Black Americans—which are just the latest murders and not uncommon—shows how little I understood the reality of racism in our country. As Time magazine points out in a June 4th article,
The killing of George Floyd was shocking. But to be surprised by it is a privilege African Americans do not have. . . A black person is killed by a police officer in America at the rate of more than one every other day. . . . For 2½ months, America has been paralyzed by a plague, its streets eerily empty. Now pent-up energy and anxiety and rage have spilled out. COVID-19 laid bare the nation’s broader racial inequities.
White privilege contributes to white apathy and white silence, which uphold the systemic factors that result in the deaths of Black and brown people in the U.S. every day. To re-quote Time magazine’s confronting statistic: “A black person is killed by a police officer in America at a rate of more than one every other day.” And to repeat the CDC statistics above, people of color in this country are dying from COVID-19 at 4 to 5 times the rate of white people.
White people need to have difficult conversations with each other about systemic racism and how it supports the white supremacist system we benefit from. We need to hold each other accountable for our direct and indirect racist behavior, which often includes centering white feelings and comfort when it comes to issues of race and racism. If we don’t, the statistics and deaths detailed above will persist.
But if each of us who benefits from this inhumane system are willing to call in our friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors to the work of anti-racism, despite the discomfort inherent in these conversations, we will be engaging in one of the most important aspects of dismantling the racist system we uphold that causes incalculable suffering.
thank you for addressing this important topic! we are seeing the same issue in utah. numbers here also show that people of color have been disproportionately affected
First, I am so so glad you recovered from your terrifying experience of COVID-19. Second, the story you share about Zoe Mungin is just gut-wrenching. It’s unconscionable that people are being denied services because of their race. A travesty. That our health care system (and so many other systems) are set up in ways that disadvantage and endanger people of color is a national shame. I hope that the stark disparities in outcomes for people of color vs. white people regarding COVID-19 will ultimately propel more people to consider a single payer system. It might not fix all the systemic problems in our health care system, but I think it’s an important step forward toward giving the most vulnerable people in our communities access. Thanks for sharing with us your experience and your reflections about systemic racism. Our country has so so much it needs to improve on.
Awesome post. Thank you so much for highlighting this. Zoe’s example shows how insidious this is. It would be so tempting to dismiss it as one bad doctor/nurse not recognizing symptoms. Everyone makes mistakes. Except it isn’t just Zoe and the numbers you share make that clear.
Thank you Wendy. I can hardly wrap my head around this. But we have to.
I really appreciate that you took the time to highlight your privilege as a white COVID-19 patient and compare it to your brown and black neighbors. My heart breaks for Zoe, her sister, and those other stories we will never know because of systemic racism.
I’m seeing my white friends saying they are tired of fighting and educating themselves. This post is a timely reminder of my responsibility to speak to this long journey of education and work for those of us who had the privilege of being blind and complicit for too long.
You have weaved in the narratives of class privilege, race and the pandemic into a very thoughtful article. Well done! It’s hard for some to believe the numerous studies that weave in class, race and insurance status…unfortunately black people still have poorer health outcomes than white people controlling for the factors listed. I hope folks realize that these systems were not set up haphazardly and will take appropriate action to make meaningful changes.