Van Jones, a CNN host and the CEO of the REFORM Alliance, has some important information for Black Americans during the dark days of the pandemic. The short version of it is, don’t be complacent. Black people can catch COVID-19 just like anyone else. I’ll confess that my first reaction upon reading the headline was to wonder if there was really anyone out there who didn’t know this. The novel coronavirus is sawing through populations around the world without seeming to show any particular favoritism. But the more I read Jones’ reasons for writing this article, along with remembering some of the early rumors that were circulating back in January, I realized that he might actually be providing a valuable public service here.
At the start of any pandemic, early information can mislead. Unfortunately, for vulnerable populations, false assumptions can have deadly consequences.
African Americans are about to learn this awful truth — in devastating ways.
Two data points converged at the start of this crisis to make a lot of black folk shrug and think, “Coronavirus is not our problem.”
The stories that Jones tells in the article may be anecdotal, but they’re kind of stunning none the less. While discussing the myth that COVID-19 is a “white disease,” he describes one relative of his who, upon being warned about the pandemic, said, “No, we got the antibodies for that!” There was apparently a common rumor going around that Black people didn’t need to be all that worried about it because this was a problem for white people and African-Americans were somehow naturally immune. That’s a pretty cavalier attitude to take when tens of thousands of people are dying, but it’s also completely incorrect.
But as I said, this story reminded me of a parallel rumor I saw making the rounds back in January. There were some folks in my social media timeline actually saying that white people shouldn’t be as worried about the coronavirus spreading in America because it was mostly Asians who were affected, including Asian-Americans returning to America from China. There were conspiracy theories making the rounds, hinting that the virus had been cooked up in a lab to specifically target Asians. I remember thinking at the time that it was a pretty silly theory because the virus came out of China. Why would they be engineering a virus to kill themselves? And besides, wouldn’t the disease naturally be killing more Asians (at least initially) if it started in China?
Jones is not only correct in saying that Black people are not immune, but if anything, they are being disproportionately impacted by the virus, as was recently reported in the New York Times. But it’s not because of the color of their skin or any genetic peculiarities specific to African-Americans. It’s because the median household income for Black Americans is still nearly $30K less annually than for white families. When you make less money, you tend to live in apartment complexes and other “dense” population environments rather than single-family homes, particularly when it comes to residents of large cities. You’re also less likely to have the best health care options available, making any health crisis more impactful.
While there’s nothing “good” coming out of this pandemic, it might at least provide a useful and needed reminder. We’re all in this together and everyone is at risk. The full participation of all communities will be required to steer our way to calmer waters. The virus doesn’t care who it sickens or kills and it’s completely colorblind in that regard. And our efforts to help each other ride this wave until we reach safety should be equally colorblind as well.