As Usual: Black Folks On The Frontlines of Fight Against COVID-19

Once Upon a Time, A History Lesson

The year is 1793 and the city of Philadelphia is being ravaged by Yellow Fever.  In the end, 10 percent of the population of the city would succumb to the illness.

At the time the City of Brotherly Love was still the capital of America and the nation’s most crowded city by far with over 50,000 residents. History recalls how it was falsely stated that African-Americans were immune to Yellow Fever.  

As is often the case, African-American protagonists were on the frontlines.

Free African Society founders Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, freedmen who were born into slavery and bought their freedom, transported the infirmed, buried the dead, bled the ill and convinced Mayor Matthew Clarkson to free black prisoners from jail to serve as nurses.

Whether by sheer ignorance or nefarious design, this misinformation undoubtedly had a devastating effect on the enslaved population of the city.  By the end, 5,000 Philadelphians died from the disease.  It is a certainty a great number of them were nurses and caregivers.

The movement of time, according to the late Stephen Hawkins, is not linear but curved, but history seems to loop in upon itself at an even greater degree. Perhaps even more so when age-old lessons aren’t heeded.  

Just weeks ago, social media was rife with the usual comedic fare making light of COVID-19 aka novel coronavirus, the latest pathogen to emerge in humanity’s ancient fight against one of her oldest and most persistent foes, the virus.   

There was even a rumor circulating claiming that individuals of African descent may have immunity, with some citing the lack of early cases on the African continent as proof.  

Almost 250 years later, the lessons taught in Philadelphia in 1793 have evaporated into nothingness and our forgetfulness returns with venom and fangs. 

Another Day, Another Pandemic

On March 1st it was revealed that a 39-year-old woman who worked in health care was the first New York state resident to test positive for COVID-19.   

Today, the coronavirus is surging forward among an American population that largely doubted its existence mere weeks ago. There are now 66,057 US citizens with the virus. 30,526 of those cases are in NY state with 2,850 cases in New York City, with projected numbers estimated in the tens of thousands.  

As the numbers grow, gone is the myth of a western privilege that has often found America’s soil largely free of such catastrophes spanning the last century to the Spanish Flu of 1918, which killed 55 million worldwide, including 675,000 Americans in that year.  

By God’s grace and the efforts of New York health commissioner Dr. Royal S. Copeland, New York City “only” had 147,000 patients and “only” 20,608 deaths. However, this same viral strain would continue to wreak global havoc until at least 1920. 

Today, the coronavirus is surging forward among an American population that largely doubted its existence mere weeks ago. 

After each upheaval of history, time goes by, elders die, and their offspring grow fat with forgetfulness.  

Ultimately, these lessons reflect differently through the lens of culture.    

It is said that New York City will be the epicenter of casualties due to COVID-19, with from 40 to 80 percent of the population possibly becoming afflicted before this terrible circumstance comes to past.  

As we hunker down and stock up, essential workers venture out into the line of fire and you’re likely at home, sitting on your ass, hopefully.   

America, as it always has, relies greatly upon working class individuals, people who do so-called dirty jobs; grocery store workers, food processing plant workers, warehouse workers, food workers, delivery drivers, truck drivers, sanitation workers, transit workers, educators, and social services. 

Add in the first responders, police officers, firefighters, EMT workers, doctors, and you have a full view of essential workers. Indeed, a full view of those likely to catch the ailment. 

The Demographics of Risk

100 million Americans work in an industry where they must literally show up for work. While less than 30% of us are working from home.  

Among the American workforce, 37% of Asian-Americans, 30% of Whites, 19.7% of Black Americans and 16.2% of Hispanic workers and are able to work from home. 

The picture painted is Black and Brown people are more at risk of exposure or financial hardship than other American demographics.  In New York City, for example, it was recently revealed that 40% of the Latino population lost a job due to the recent shutdown.

On March 19, the New York Health Departments released statistical data showing men make up 59% of infected people in the city, and White House coronavirus expert Dr. Deborah Birx cited mortality rates in Italy in stating women are twice as likely to recover as men.  

Because of occupation, because of strained finances and the lasting legacy of medical racism in America. Additionally, 54 percent of COVID-19 victims are men between the ages of 18-49.

These “people-facing” occupations are at the mercy of their own precautionary measures when it comes to COVID-19, and the numbers of infection in New York City alone appear to show a significant percentage of African-Americans among those afflicted.

A simple survey of those who have died reveals this; a 44-year-old Black news technician at NBC, a 36-year-old Black high school educator in Brooklyn, and several local legends of the basketball court in Dave Edwards of Georgetown and Lee Green of St. John’s University, both were African-American.

As of March 26, there were hundreds of NYPD officers who tested positive for coronavirus.

As of today, there are dozens MTA workers who test positive, as well more educators. By fate, the grisly toll will only be revealed to us in the end. Because of occupation, because of strained finances and the lasting legacy of medical racism in America many Black and Brown people are at their wits end regarding what the future holds.


According to reports, 80 percent of those who come down with coronavirus suffer mild symptoms that don’t require hospitalization and around 15 percent had severe symptoms which include shortness of breath. The elderly, as well as those with asthma, diabetes and heart disease, appear most at risk.  All three of these ailments are historically high among African-Americans.

Though the likelihood of survival is very high, the highly contagious nature of the pathogen means that a greater swath of people are at risk. A 1 percent mortality rate, less in places like Germany and South Korea, is promising.

However, the already strained United States health system, as well as institutional and historic factors, could mean African-Americans will die at a greater rate than any other racial demographic before this is over.

Let’s hope not, though. Indeed, let’s hope not. Prayer can’t hurt.

Back to top