COVID in Black and white
At the population level, the epidemiological data linking the social construct of race to the physical reality of suffering are painfully clear, on COVID and a raft of other diseases (Emily Elconin/Getty Images).
“When white folks catch a cold, Black folks get pneumonia.”
We’ve known this old adage for years but never before did it strike so close to home as it did last month when COVID finally caught up with our interracial family.
First, a little background. Since the global pandemic began in March of 2020, my wife Sindiso has put her PhD to work by spending countless hours reading the science and compiling a rigorous pandemic strategy for our family. Fortunate as we were to have flexible jobs and a home of our own – and mindful of the unique risks COVID posed – we decided to take every available precaution to stop the spread and keep our family safe.
Based on Sindiso’s research, we turned down frequent invitations to indoor gatherings from well-meaning family and friends. We haven’t traveled since Christmas week 2019 or dined at an indoor restaurant since Valentine’s 2020. For months after “the great unmasking” earlier this year, our older kids have been among a dwindling few still wearing masks at school. I too have felt more and more out of place wearing my KN95 whenever I go indoors, whether to work or as the family “errand boy.” Through it all, we’ve had many hard conversations with people we love who took issue with our increasingly offbeat approach.
I’ll admit I sometimes took issue with it too, especially when the CDC would loosen its guidelines and my extroverted nature would long to interact with others unencumbered. In those moments I would remind myself that our youngest child was still unprotected while we await the under-5 vaccine and that Sindiso was at heightened risk of COVID complications due to a respiratory condition. I would also think of Sindiso’s many relatives in South Africa who were affected by the pandemic, including her dear dad, who died prematurely when care for a manageable chronic disease was interrupted during the first COVID spike.
Besides, it was hard to argue with the fact that her strategy had kept our immediate family safe all along – until one of our older kids brought COVID home from school last month, in spite of being masked and vaccinated.
What followed was an object lesson in racial inequality of the kind I might have dismissed as mere anecdote if it did not match the broader trends so well. On the one end of the spectrum, I was largely asymptomatic but for a mild headache and intermittent cough. Next, our three children endured a few uncomfortable nights with fevers, coughing, and fatigue, but soon returned to their rambunctious selves.
Sindiso, by contrast, grew more and more unwell. A few days in when she could barely stand, we helped her into the minivan and took a family drive to the local clinic, just in case. There the testing showed her vital signs had dropped dangerously low and emergency care was needed.
Rather than bringing their mama home for a special takeout dinner, the kids watched as able paramedics wheeled her on a stretcher into the waiting ambulance and brought her to the ER. With no visitors allowed, the kids and I drove home alone. It was a somber bedtime. We did not forget to say our prayers.
By the grace of God and good vaccine science, Sindiso’s oxygen levels stayed mostly up while IV treatments helped restore her remaining vitals and kept the inflammation at bay. Soon she was home again and on her way to what we trust will be a full recovery. While I am immensely grateful, I cannot help wondering where we might have been had an earlier, deadlier variant found Sindiso – like the 1 million Americans who have died from COVID to date.
Reflecting on this experience, I struggle with how to make sense of it for our impressionable kids. How do I explain to them why their daddy was fine but their mama got very sick from the same disease? Or why none of their “white” relatives went to hospital with COVID while several of their “black” ones did, and some did not make it out alive? Or why vast disparities of every kind exist between their two equally loving, equally deserving families?
Do I say nothing and let them think that mama and her family are weak while daddy and his family are strong? Or do I explain the truth about systemic racism, which compelled mama and her family to live in polluted neighborhoods where highways and a coal-fired power plant poured soot into her lungs, causing lifelong respiratory conditions?
Do I tell them it’s not in just South Africa: That here in the “Land of the Free,” people who look like them are exposed to 1.5 times more air pollution than those who look like me due to residential segregation, are 1.5 times more likely to suffer from asthma as a result, and are 1.7 times more likely to die of COVID?
It’s impossible to say how systemic racism factors into a single case like ours; human physiology is too complex to “prove” discrete causes at the individual level. Nevertheless, at the population level, the epidemiological data linking the social construct of race to the physical reality of suffering are painfully clear, on COVID and a raft of other diseases.
I am immensely grateful Sindiso fought so hard to ensure our family wouldn’t become another statistic in the fatal sense. Yet I shudder to think how many other parents and grandparents fought just as hard as she and failed, often for reasons beyond their control. And I mourn for the more than 200,000 children who have become orphaned by the pandemic, including African Americans at more than twice the national rate.
These racial inequities were not caused by any one individual. They are the result of collective action – and inaction – by people like me to establish and maintain America’s racial caste system, four centuries and counting. Until we who call ourselves “white” join with people of every hue to stop this senseless evil and become actively antiracist, it will never end. As we mark another Juneteenth, I hope we’ll find the courage to dismantle the racist structures on which we stand – so that everyone may stand.
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