By Whitney Gresham
With the third-highest rate of deaths from COVID-19 in the nation, Michigan is among a handful of states now considered at the epicenter of the deadly pandemic.
Forty percent of the people who’ve died are African Americans, even though African Americans only make up 14 percent of the state population.
According to the state Coronavirus website Michigan.Gov, as of Friday morning, the state ranks in cases and deaths only behind New York and New Jersey and ahead of the more populous California. It has recorded more than 21,500 cases, almost 1,100 deaths, more than 1,115 confirmed cases and 117 daily deaths.
Detroit’s death toll has climbed to nearly 300 and its total cases more than 6,000.
Given the disproportionate impact the deadly virus is having on the Motor City on Thursday, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced the creation of the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. She also extended a stay-at-home order. Michigan residents must stay home and away from non-essential workplaces through April 30.
The task force, chaired by Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II, will consist of leaders across state government and health care professionals from communities most impacted by the spread of coronavirus.
As of today, over 40% of COVID-19 deaths in Michigan are African Americans, but only 14% of Michiganders are African Americans. The Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities will provide the governor with recommendations on how to address this disparity as the state works to slow the spread of COVID-19 throughout the state.
“This virus is holding a mirror up to our society and reminding us of the deep inequities in this country,” said Governor Whitmer. “From a basic lack of access to health care, transportation, and protections in the workplace, these inequities hit people of color and vulnerable communities the hardest. This task force will help us start addressing these disparities right now as we work to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Michigan.”
Dr. Tiffany Sanford, MD, MBA, Chief Medical Officer for the Wellness Plan Medical Centers of the Greater Detroit area said the task force was badly needed. She hoped it focuses on the structural and racial inequities in Michigan which are as much a reason for the disproportionate impact the deadly virus is having on Detroit and other urban areas as much as the victims underlying health issues.
She noted beyond underlying health problems another major reason for the rapid spread of the Coronavirus throughout the Detroit metro area is poverty and environmental challenges. Many of the Black elderlies in metro Detroit do not live in homes or are in an economic or social position where they can isolate themselves from their grandchildren. And because most young people have difficulty voluntarily complying with orders to isolate themselves from the elderly – especially with those with whom they live – it has created a ticking time bomb in Detroit and poor communities all across the country.
“The most irritating thing about all of this coverage is that folks in the media are acting as if this is a new thing that just came about,” Dr. Sanford said. “The narrative around it has very much been about placing the blame on those communities; African Americans have higher rates of high blood pressure and diabetes because you guys eat a lot of unhealthy food. But this virus is the great equalizer to the extent that anybody is as easy to catch this thing as the next person. The determining factor is if you have underlying health issues. But your chances of surviving it too often depends on your ability to access adequate healthcare and the environment you live in.”
Dr. Stacy Scott, a Toledo-based public health expert and founder of the Global Infant Safe Sleep Center in Toledo, agreed with Sanford. She said while she, too, welcomed the governor’s task force, she hopes that it focuses not just on the lifestyles of the victims, but on another major underlying precondition, African Americans grapple with daily: white supremacy.
“The issue before them is are they going to really going to deals with the social determinants of health?” she said. “COVID-19 really exposes some of the major issues around health outcomes for African Americans. Such as environmental issues, like where they live. The lack of employment opportunities, lack of insurance and the criminal justice system.”
Dr. Scott said these are all major factors in how life is lived in a city such as Detroit where structural racism and discrimination in every aspect of black lives that it can be considered a pandemic in and of itself.
“On top of all this we haven’t begun to measure the impact of implicit biases within healthcare systems which contributes to who is being tested for COVID-19 and how they are being treated,” she said. “So we can see how this COVID-19 is having a major impact in Detroit and communities of color everywhere.”
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist acknowledged this sad reality in the governor’s announcement.
“We know that generations of racial disparities and inequality has a detrimental impact on the lives of people across the state,” Lt. Governor Gilchrist said. “The coronavirus pandemic has shown this inequity to be particularly true, especially in the Black community, where the health of our friends and family has been disproportionately impacted. That’s why we are taking immediate action to assemble some of the greatest minds to tackle this racial injustice now and in the future.”
During the COVID-19 crisis, Governor Whitmer has signed several executive orders aimed at protecting people in vulnerable communities. These include orders to temporarily ban evictions and tax foreclosures, expand unemployment benefits, and restore running water for families.
Dr. Sanford said despite the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on Detroit and the states black communities it should be a wakeup call to the white communities too.
“The Coronavirus is shining a spotlight in the African American community and people are making it a big issue because they know we are all in this together,” she said. “Diabetes doesn’t impact you, hypertension doesn’t impact you if you are a Caucasian woman living in Bloomfield Hills. But if a community of Black people who are very poor and exposed to this illness, all you need is to come into contact with a small pocket of that infected population and now you have a virus that spreads outside that community into yours.”