‘People of color want freedom … from infection, freedom from death’

Members of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee heard testimony this week that Atlanta's Morehouse School of Medicine wants to help research the disproportionate harm COVID-19 is doing to people of color. Courtesy Architect of the Capitol.

WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately harmed communities of color, laying bare the systemic racial disparities across the United States, experts told Georgia lawmakers this week.

Early evidence suggests there are elevated rates of infection and death from COVID-19 in African American populations and other communities of color.

Nationwide, black Americans are dying at nearly two times the rate of their population share, according to the COVID Project from The Atlantic. And Latino Americans are disproportionately testing positive for the virus in 41 states and Washington, D.C., according to the COVID Project.

“This is the racial pandemic within the viral pandemic,” said Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University and one of the creators of the COVID racial data tracker. He’s also the author of “How to Be an Antiracist.”

Kendi testified at a hearing Wednesday in the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, the powerful tax-writing committee in Congress.

The historic hearing was the first official virtual hearing in the House of Representatives, as lawmakers make unprecedented changes to the way they operate on Capitol Hill. Two Georgia representatives sit on the committee, U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson, a Newnan Republican, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat, who has pancreatic cancer and is participating in hearings remotely this week.

Black people are 31% of the population in Georgia, but make up 44% of COVID-19 cases where race was reported in the state, according to the COVID tracking project. And black people make up 49% of reported deaths in Georgia.

Georgia’s is about 9% Latino and the state Department of Public Health says as of Thursday they accounted for 12% of confirmed COVID-19 cases. However, state officials have said efforts to collect ethnicity information in Georgia were uneven in the weeks after testing ramped up in April and 21% of confirmed cases in the ethnicity listing late this week are counted as “unknown.”

Georgia had 45,070 cases of coronavirus reported in its 159 counties from Feb. 17 to May 28, according to Georgia DPH data.

Pandemic highlights disparities

Kendi said lawmakers need to look at policy across the board and its effects on race.

“People of color want freedom,” Kendi said. “I am not talking about freedom to get a haircut. I am talking about the most fundamental freedoms that have been denied for far too long, freedom from infection, freedom from death.”

Kendi and other researchers developed the tracking website due to gaps in data and reporting on how the virus is affecting minorities. Kendi says years of racist policies have led to this point.

“We should be asking why are black and Latino people less likely to be working from home, less likely to be insured, less likely to live in unpolluted neighborhoods,” Kendi told lawmakers. “The answer is racist policy.”

Dr. Alicia Fernandez, a professor of medicine at the University of California in San Francisco, said that at her hospital, most of the Latinos who are testing positive from COVID-19 are unable to work from home.

“COVID-19 has revealed the great health impact of how we work and live, the social determinants of health,” said Fernandez.

As communities and businesses begin to reopen, testing and contact tracing are seen as key to keep the virus from spreading. But experts say states need to make sure the access is equitable.

“In order to protect the lives of the most vulnerable populations in our society without a vaccine and without a drug, the only thing to do is to keep those populations from infections in the first place. That is going to take testing and contact tracing,” said Dr. James Hildreth, president and CEO of Meharry Medical College in Tennessee.

Hildreth and leaders from the three other historically black medical schools — Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in California, Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta — want lawmakers to fund a consortium from their schools that would provide expanded testing, contact tracing and research. They say their institutions are poised to work with community groups and churches to create networks of contact tracers that people can trust.

Testing sites are not always readily available to some communities across the United States.

Only four states currently have public racial breakdowns for everyone who is tested: Nevada, Delaware, Kansas and Illinois. And a new analysis from National Public Radio found that testing sites are disproportionately located in whiter neighborhoods in four out of six of the largest cities in Texas. Testing disparities have also been reported in New York City and Chicago.

House Democrats included funding for testing centers in minority communities as part of the wide-ranging coronavirus relief package they approved earlier this month. The bill is unlikely to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, also introduced legislation Wednesday intended to increase capacity for testing in underserved areas. The Rapid Testing for Communities Act would give grants to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to support testing outside of labs, with priority for underserved areas.

“These conversations can be difficult, but we are at a crucial stage and as communities begin to loosen restrictions, these will worsen,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, said at the conclusion of the hearing Wednesday.

“We can save lives by understanding what communities of color need and taking action.”