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2 Jul 2020 21:09
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  •   Home > News > Health & Safety

    America is facing a 'double pandemic': coronavirus COVID-19 and racism

    The world watched eight minutes of George Floyd's final moments, while other black men and women died out of sight, in hospitals and in their homes of COVID-19. Here's why African-American community leaders have dubbed this moment a "double pandemic".

    On the day George Floyd was gasping for air on a kerbside in Minneapolis, hundreds of Americans took their last breath with him.

    The world watched eight minutes of the 46-year-old's final moments, while other black men and women died out of sight, in hospitals and in their homes of COVID-19.

    African-American community leaders have dubbed this moment a "double pandemic".

    At the Calvary Lutheran Church, a block away from where George Floyd was killed, pastor Hans Lee told the ABC both crises had ignited a fury that has existed for centuries.

    "There's COVID-19 and there's COVID-1619 — the year when slavery came to America," he said.

    "We've had a disease ever since then."

    Before Mr Floyd became a household name, America was already a nation choking — exposed to its worst public health crisis in decades.

    More than 100,000 Americans are dead from the coronavirus, and the mortality rate for black patients is 2.4 times higher than for white Americans.

    Racism that was entrenched in the American health system for generations is now even deadlier.

    'Despair across US is the function of history'

    In the mostly white state of Minnesota — where Mr Floyd was killed — close to a third of reported coronavirus cases have been in the black community, which makes up just 6 per cent of the population.

    And in at least 31 other states, black people are dying at higher rates.

    In Louisiana, for example, African Americans account for more than half of COVID-19 deaths, while about a third of the state's residents are black.

    It's a familiar scenario during a disaster, dean of Tulane University's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans Dr Thomas LaVeist said.

    "I don't think any of us are surprised, any time there's a crisis it's usually the most disadvantaged that feel the most impact," he said.

    It's estimated one in every 1,850 black Americans has died. And an economic crisis means black unemployment is soaring.

    "The despair — what you're seeing around the country — is the function of history," Dr LaVeist said.

    Public health experts fear a second wave has yet to hit at a time when hundreds of thousands of people are out demonstrating.

    Mr Lee said his church had helped protesters in Minneapolis who needed water, food, masks and hand sanitiser.

    "People are very angry about what's happened to George Floyd, enraged even," he said.

    "We're upset and we're trying to accompany those folks who are traumatised by this."

    Black protesters are putting their lives on the line, even as COVID-19 is killing them

    Social distancing is all but impossible for those people out protesting in the middle of a pandemic.

    It was already a luxury not permitted to black workers who could not shelter at home, Dr LaVeist said.

    "They are less likely to have jobs that allow them to stay at home on their computers and still get their paycheque," he said.

    "You saw … the people who are necessary to keep society going and they were disproportionately African Americans, Latinos and immigrants."

    Public health experts believe an uptick in COVID-19 is almost certain, although no-one can say how deadly that could be.

    It deeply worries Dr LaVeist, who leads a project called the Skin You're In, investigating why African Americans die younger than any other ethnic group in the US.

    "I see events that potentially could be major spreaders of the disease," he said.

    "The nature of a protest rally is that it's a crowd by definition, and it's very worrisome to me when I see a lot of people on TV in crowds not wearing masks."

    In Minneapolis, the Health Department is scrambling to make sure protesters can later be tested for the coronavirus, even if they are asymptomatic.

    Dr LaVeist said the impact of the pandemic had fuelled the protests, but "the unrest is a lot of things, it's going back years, decades and centuries".

    "This is not the first unjust death of an African American that's been filmed [even] in the last month."

    At a protest in Los Angeles this week, actress Vella Lovell held up a sign quoting black writer Roxane Gay.

    "Eventually, doctors will find a coronavirus vaccine," she wrote.

    "But black people will continue to wait, despite the futility of hope, for a cure for racism."

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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