As the number of coronavirus cases and deaths in Alabama continues to rise, another trend became alarmingly apparent: African-Americans are not only getting infected at a disproportionate rate, but they are also make up the majority of deaths.
The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH)published its latest stats on the racial breakdown of cases on Thursday. The data shows that of the 2,881 cases at the time, 36.4 percent of those infected with the coronavirus (COVID-19) were black and 47.7 percent were white.
The data also showed that African-Americans made up 55.2 percent of the 58 confirmed deaths. However, they only make up 26.8 percent of the population in Alabama.
"It's been intensified and amplified and exacerbated by this, by these things were, as they say in the insurance industry, 'preexisting conditions,'" said the Rev. Gregory Bentley.
Bentley lead the Madison County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) since it was established four years ago. He said hearing the numbers from the ADPH didn't shock him.
"Disappointed, but not surprised at all because I know American history and I know the American experience," said Bentley.
Part of that experience is a gap between the black and white communities, both on wealth as well as health care. According to the U.S. Department of Health's Office on Minority Health, non-Hispanic black citizens have a median household income of $40,165 as of 2017. For non-Hispanic white residents, that number is $65,845.
Regarding health insurance, 55.5 percent of black people have private health insurance compared to 75.4 percent of white people.
Dr. Nauman Qureshi, a physician with Athens Internal Medicine, said other preexisting medical conditions also factor into why black people are contracting the virus at a higher rate.
"Factors come into play, such as your age, whether you have diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, asthma. All of these are more common in the African-American population and so that is why the African-American population tends to get sicker when they catch the virus," said Qureshi.
While residents of Alabama are under a stay at home order, a sizable proportion of black residents work in jobs that are considered "essential" and don't always allow ideal social distancing.
"They probably cannot work from home. They don't have that option. They're in closer contact with each other, their work space is less and they're more confined. So all of that probably conspires to make it a perfect storm," said Qureshi.
Groups like the Alabama New South Coalition are trying to educate those in the black community about the seriousness of the virus and their increased vulnerability to it.
Jessica Fortune Barker, the president of the Madison County chapter, said her focus changed when she and others were confronted with the stark statistics.
"For me it changed to awareness. We have to educate our community," said Fortune Barker. "So for people like me, I started calling on what I call our 'community influencers.' Hey, we have to get information out on social media. We have a hashtag, #CopingThroughCOVID, that we're using to try and share information."
She said early on in the outbreak, she saw people in the black community were joking about the virus and not taking it seriously. She said as that changes, she wants people to remain cautious, but confident.
"We're a resilient people, you know. We're used to having to fight from a disadvantaged standpoint. And so I just always tell my community that, hey, these things may be impacting us, but we have the strength and the resiliency and we can pull through this together," said Fortune Baker.
As for the next steps, Jerry Burnet, the president of the Huntsville/Madison County chapter of the NAACP, said with these facts being so apparent now, legislators in Alabama and on Capitol Hill need to do more to ensure the health of the American public.
"We need to press our elected officials to pass bills, but immediately pass affordable health care. Make sure that everyone has access to affordable health care because we know it effects poor people and people of color by not having the ability to address their health issues," said Burnet.
Bentley goes one step further and said now is exactly the time to enact universal health care in the United States, akin to the Medicare for All proposal put forth by formal presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders.
"Economically, it's very feasible. We've just shown that by the amount of money we've coughed up and pumped into the economic system. You know, why can't that money be put toward human welfare and human well-being?" asked Bentley. "So it's not an issue of capacity or ability. It's an issue of willingness. Do we have the will and the want-to to do what's right by the people.'
He said he's glad that Americans are having a conversation now about some of the underlying issues that led to this crisis and hopes that momentum to find solutions doesn't fade when the virus does.
"There will be another crisis, whether it's COVID-19 or Katrina or whatever the case may be, that exposes the preexisting conditions that have been with us for a long time," said Bentley.
"So we need to do what we need to do address this immediate crisis, which is very real, but we also need to look at the conditions that made this much more deadly and dangerous for some and not others."