Covid-19 looks to be deadliest for Black men, but the habits we adopt today can last a lifetime. “It’s bad over there, huh?” my father asked on the phone. He was outside Washington, D.C.; I was in Berkeley, California. The Bay Area had just announced its shelter-in-place orders hours earlier, and I was rushing around for provisions to make it through the lockdown when he called. Even though it was March 16 — earlier than anywhere else in the country taking such precautions — the novel coronavirus had been on my radar for a few months. As a reporter covering technology, health, and science for Level’s sibling publications, I’d been keeping up on the outbreak and lockdowns in China and the spread of the virus to the West Coast. I’d even been working from home for a little over a week, as were many of my coworkers, in order to protect myself.
But much of the country hadn’t yet realized how Covid-19 might affect folks in the U.S., including my dad. He was worried about whether I was actually going to stay inside. And I was even more worried about whether he was going to stay inside. He’s 76 years old, has been smoking most of his adult life, and has survived cancer and a stroke. He’s also been a car salesman for more than 30 years, so his day-to-day life is built around shaking hands, talking to people at close range, and sharing confined spaces with strangers during test drives. From his age to his habits to his health to his job, his life is full of factors I knew would put him at greater risk for catching the virus — and a far greater risk of dying from it.
“Are you going to stop going to work?” I asked him. He hesitated, then said his manager had told him he should go home if he wanted. But then he said he’d be fine, that he needed to work to make money. Make no mistake: Black and Brown men aren’t responsible for the pandemic. Not for the inaction and policy failures that allowed Covid-19 to take root in the U.S., not for the lack of access to quality health care in the country, and not for the environmental and health inequities that have led to chronic health conditions. That he was being stubborn didn’t surprise me. That he would willingly put himself in harm’s way, though, did — especially since his own son, my brother, had died less than six months before. “Me and Mom can’t take another death so soon after Damon,” I told him. “You need to stay your old ass at home. You can’t make money if you’re dead.” I explained that the virus is particularly deadly for older people, especially those like him with other health conditions. Thankfully, he relented and has been taking the threat of Covid-19 seriously since.
At the time of our conversation, Washington, D.C. — a city that’s around 47% Black — had only 22 positive cases of the virus and no reported deaths. Now, over 1,500 people have tested positive for the virus, and 32 people have died. The number of positive cases and deaths from the virus in D.C. has doubled in less than a week despite a stay-at-home order that began March 30. Despite that, it seems like a large number of Black folks — not just in D.C. but all over the country — haven’t been as quick as myself or my dad to take proper precautions to protect themselves from the virus. As recently as last week, a popular fish market in the city was packed with people, most of them Black, leading the city to shut down the market the next day.
But this virus is deadly, y’all. It’s killing Black people at a disproportionate rate all over the country, from D.C. to New York to Chicago to Detroit to Milwaukee. There are multiple reasons for this. There are several health conditions — asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes — that Black folks are likely to have that also result in a higher likelihood of severe health complications or death because of Covid-19. Black people have persistently lower rates of health insurance coverage, according to a 2017 study, and even when we do have access to health care, we face a medical system that’s often racist. Some have argued, too, that the Trump administration’s policies and handling of the pandemic, especially early failures around testing, is leading to the high numbers of Black deaths. Regardless of the reasons for the disproportionately high rates of Black deaths from Covid-19, Black men need to do all we can to flatten the curve within the curve — what Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers last week called the “crisis within a crisis” — and avoid getting the virus. Especially since recent research shows that men are more likely to die from the virus than women, making Black men perhaps the most endangered community in the entire country during the pandemic.
Just this past Friday, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams seemed to shift the responsibility of not dying from Covid-19 to Black and Latinx people individually, telling them to avoid drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. “We need you to step up,” he said in a press conference. “Do it for your abuela, do it for your grandaddy, do it for your Big Mama, do it for your pop pop.” Let that sink in. Make no mistake: Black and Brown men aren’t responsible for the pandemic. Not for the inaction and policy failures that allowed Covid-19 to take root in the U.S., not for the lack of access to quality health care in the country, and not for the environmental and health inequities that have led to chronic health conditions. But as we’ve seen throughout American history — Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 economic crash, the HIV/AIDS pandemic — Black and Brown communities are the last to be considered during a crisis. In the richest country in the world, we’re given scant resources to protect our own health. During that Friday press conference, even though Adams said the Trump administration is coming up with a plan to address the health disparities associated with Covid-19, he gave no clear details, and there’s little reason to think any are coming. Even after (or if) the Trump administration rolls out such a plan, we need to exercise our own agency and power to protect our health, especially at a time like this. And not the Stepin Fetchit way that Adams talked about it during the press conference — we don’t need to do it for anyone but ourselves because we are enough.
So, Black men, take every precaution you can. Stay inside as much as possible and wear gloves and masks when you’re outside. Yes, really. Avoid crowds. Wash your hands frequently, and the right way. Eat well: Try to cut back on heavily processed foods, and add some more vegetables. Get whatever exercise you can even if you’re cooped up — push-ups, jumping jacks, anything. Spend a little time in silence every day; pray, meditate, or even just sit quietly and count your breaths. If you live somewhere not too congested, get some fresh air on walks with your family (just avoid other people). If you feel even a little sick, do what you can to get to the doctor or talk to one on the phone as soon as possible. But most importantly, remember these things. The need for social distancing and masks will hopefully abate soon, but everything else is how we take better care of ourselves — not just in this one historic and horrific moment, but for the rest of our (longer, healthier) lives. The odds are stacked against us in enough ways. Don’t let the deaths of those we’ve already lost to the pandemic be in vain.
Written by: Drew Costley – a reporter, editor, photojournalist, and multimedia journalist who covers the environment, health, science and tech. He’s based in the Bay Area.