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Why Misinformation And Distrust Are Making COVID-19 More Dangerous For Black America

Apr 10, 2020
Originally published on April 11, 2020 7:31 am

Across many parts of the U.S., black Americans are dying of COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates. In Milwaukee County, for example, nearly three quarters of those who have died of the virus were black. But only about a quarter of the county's population is black.

Data from Louisiana, Michigan, Chicago and New York also shows racial imbalances. So what is going on?

At a coronavirus task force briefing on Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, talked about systemic challenges.

"Health disparities have always existed for the African-American community, Fauci said. The crisis, he added, is "shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is."

Fauci was referring to factors like underlying health conditions, lack of insurance, substandard housing — challenges caused and then exacerbated by racism.

Jahmil Lacey studies health disparities in South Central Los Angeles and says there's another issue at play: misinformation.

"When the pandemic first started, there were a lot of rumblings around, like this being a hoax. I've heard stories about people believing that, you know, black people were immune to coronavirus," he said in an interview Friday with NPR's Morning Edition.

Lacey said there's a longstanding mistrust that some black Americans feel toward the public health establishment.

"I think in order to understand the depth of distrust black people have towards health care institutions, having an awareness of the long history of medical experimentation on black people is important," he said.

Take for example, Lacey said, the infamous Tuskegee experiment, when over the course of 40 years, the U.S. Public Health Service allowed syphilis to go untreated in hundreds of African American men in order to chronicle the progression of the disease inside the body.

Lacey said the distrust caused by Tuskegee informs how many African Americans view the government's response to the coronavirus. It's one reason, he said, for the concern over an effort in Detroit, a majority African American city, to test a drug on 3,000 local residents that is regularly touted by President Trump.

The drug, hydroxychloroquine, is currently used to treat lupus and prevent malaria, but there remains no solid evidence that it is an effective COVID-19 treatment.

"There's a lot of, you know, just skepticism about that because ... the research around this drug hasn't really been very sound," Lacey said. "And what they're proposing to do is to use this drug with black patients."

"The real issue here," he continued, "is that the coronavirus is unmasking what I consider the negligence and disinvestment in black communities that we've been forced to live with for generations."

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