Message from COVID to Black America: Rising tide doesn’t lift all boats

Glenn Ellis

News Analysis

(TriceEdneyWire.com) — For the first time in six months, we’re seeing a return to 100,000 new COVID cases each day. Dr. Anthony Fauci says the trajectory is moving towards 200,000/day—levels we saw before there were COVID vaccines. Things are not going in the right direction, by any means.

Clearly, this frightening, upward trend is fueled by several things: the number of unvaccinated people; the increasing unwillingness of people to comply with wearing face masks; total ‘pandemic fatigue’; and the rise of variants, most notably the powerful Delta variant, which has shattered the original estimates for 60% of all Americans to be fully vaccinated against the original virus strain in order to reach herd immunity. And as long as people keep getting infected, we will keep getting new variants.

The Delta spread has moved the needle for us to reach herd immunity to well over 80% and approaching 90%. There are currently, still, over 100-million unvaccinated people in this country. We’ve only just reach 50% of the population being fully vaccinated. It is embarrassing since only two percent of the people on the entire continent of Africa has received at least one dose.

Meanwhile, richer countries in the West, including the U.S., are beginning to give third doses (boosters) instead of ensuring that everyone on the planet get access to vaccines.

In over 400 years, our experiences with the United States healthcare and medical system don’t allow Black Americans the luxury of ignoring our lived experiences. We see HIV/AIDS, after 40 years, remain an epidemic in Black America, yet it is a chronic condition for White America. But the same public health officials who have helmed the ship question Black skepticism and hesitancy.

We couldn’t get tested; couldn’t work from home; we weren’t ethically prioritized to receive the vaccines; and are now left totally confused on how to protect our young children. There are specific aspects of how this pandemic negatively impacts Black communities in unique ways. We need to know what those aspects are and get as much information as possible.

Throughout our history in this hemisphere, Blacks have had to find their way out of the maze of ups and downs that have been a part of this country’s medical history. This pandemic is no different.

As soon as the FDA officially approves the vaccines, currently being used under Emergency Use Authorization, we can expect state and local authorities to make it possible for our children to be in classrooms and schools, surrounded by unmasked, unvaccinated adults, while they sit vulnerable without the benefit of an available vaccine for young children. This phase of the pandemic has raised the stakes to their highest, in terms of our children’s health and safety. There is no doubt that the ‘official’ messaging on children, school, and vaccines is confusing, in addition to being conflicting at times. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends in-person learning and urges all who are eligible to be vaccinated to protect against COVID-19. CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

Yet, across this country, we see state and local guidelines making it possible for unmasked, unvaccinated young children to attend schools where teachers and staff are likely to also be unvaccinated and unmasked. On top of it all, ‘back-to-school’ is not going to be walk in the park academically. According to the New York Times, over one million students from the poorest communities didn’t enroll in kindergarten last year. Over 340,000 of them were five-year-old children. Imagine tens of thousands of six-year-olds beginning first grade (under COIVD conditions) having totally missed out on the traditional kindergarten experience.

Just one year ago, child COVID-19 cases made up only around three percent of the U.S. total; COVID infections in children now account for more than a fifth of new coronavirus cases. States with large outbreaks are seeing rising case numbers among children as well as adults. As it reaches into our communities, how does the Delta strain affect children, and how can we help them safely navigate their days?

Lastly, Blacks should be particularly concerned about ‘long haulers’ and chronic conditions. Little to no attention is devoted in public health messaging on how this aftereffect of COVID infection in some result in a myriad of systemic health problems. With a significant segment of the Black population living with chronic conditions, long before the pandemic, how well-prepared is the primary care network to handle this new burden to an already overtaxed system? Who’s paying attention to this accident waiting to happen?

It has become apparent, after what the pandemic has shown us, that there are two different systems addressing the health of Americans and the well-being of communities. There is the one system that protects the needs and interests of some, while the other system subjects the rest of the population to, basically, fend for themselves. Most harmful to the Black population throughout the course of the COVID pandemic, has been the absence of information that speaks, directly, to their needs and interests. The narrative of information being disseminated from public health officials, politicians, and the media is shaped on the assumption that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’ This would be true if all the boats were seaworthy before the tide went down. But we know that Blacks, in this country, have some of, if not the worst health outcomes in every category—long before the pandemic.

Going into the pandemic, we were disproportionately vulnerable and at higher risk. The country’s efforts and resources are directed at ‘promoting the common good.’ Regrettably, that obviously doesn’t, and has never included us. At the very least, these eye-opening ‘realities’ should give Blacks enough pause to stop and think about the information, and the understanding that is needed to make good, informed decisions about surviving this pandemic. Don’t ever forget that information is the best medicine.

(Glenn Ellis, MPH, is a Visiting Scholar at The National Bioethics Center at Tuskegee University and 2018 and 2020 Harvard Medical School Bioethics Fellow. For more good health information visit <www.glennellis.com> or @glennhealth.)

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