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In Chicago, COVID-19 Is Hitting The Black Community Hard

A public service message Stay Home Saves Lives is seen against the Chicago skyline Monday, March 30, 2020.
A public service message Stay Home Saves Lives is seen against the Chicago skyline Monday, March 30, 2020.

While black residents make up about 29% of Chicago's population, a whopping 72% of the city's residents who have died from COVID-19 so far are black. And according to the public health commissioner, 52% of those testing positive are black.

Health disparities and access to care play a key role. Many essential workers holding down jobs like driving buses, childcare or in grocery stores are black. As the pandemic continues to take a toll on health and economics, there are calls for addressing underlying racial inequities.

Linda Rae Murray, a retired doctor who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health, said the high mortality rate for blacks doesn't surprise her.

"It makes me furious. It makes me angry. The pandemic hits different populations differently," Murray said. "For African-Americans we have higher rates of diabetes, higher rates of blood pressure, coronary diseases and many other medical conditions that make people more vulnerable to having bad outcomes to this virus."

The first person in Illinois to die of COVID-19 last month was a black woman named Patricia Frieson. A week later her sister Wanda Bailey died. Both had underlying health conditions.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the numbers take her breath away.

"This is a call to action moment for all of us. When we talk about equity and inclusion, they're not just nice notions. They're an imperative that we must embrace as a city," Lightfoot said.

The mayor's office created a new racial equity rapid response team. The idea is to work with community leaders to create a system of checking in on people and then direct resources to vulnerable communities.

While stay-at-home orders may be effective for people who can telework, local and national data show more of those employees are white higher-wage workers. According to Census data in Chicago, blacks and Latinos are more likely to be cooks and janitors.

Helene Gayle heads the Chicago Community Trust, which is co-managing a COVID-19 relief fund. She is also the former CEO of CARE, an international humanitarian group that helps communities recover from disasters like earthquakes and famine.

"We used to talk about building back better," Gayle said. "And that when communities were impacted, whether natural or human emergencies, can we use the work that we're doing in emergency response to actually build a bridge to longer term so we are building greater resiliency."

Gayle said it would be impossible to learn from this pandemic without considering the role racial disparity is playing.

Copyright 2020 WBEZ Chicago. To see more, visit WBEZ Chicago.