Coronavirus: Bernie Sanders denounces 'systemic racism' behind huge disparity in African American deaths

Comments come as total US infections passes 380,000 and death toll tops 12,000

Andrew Buncombe
Tuesday 07 April 2020 20:24 BST
Bernie Sanders argues in 2005 that companies should not profit from a pandemic

Bernie Sanders has denounced the “systemic racism” he claims is responsible for the huge disparity of coronavirus deaths among the African American community.

Amid growing evidence that people of colour, especially African Americans, make up a disproportionate number of those being infected or killed by the virus, the Democratic hopeful said this was the result of racism embedded in every aspect of society and a “dysfunctional healthcare system”.

“Some 87 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured, so many of our people can’t afford to go to the doctor. You are aware that we have a housing crisis, and people who are homeless all over this country. People are packed into homes and apartments, where there’s just not a whole lot of room,” he said in a live-streamed town hall-style conversation.

“You are aware that many people living in cities with food deserts, where people cannot go out and get decent quality food fresh produce.”

He added: “What does that have to do with a terrible pandemic that we are living through right this minute? Well, the answer is, it has a whole lot to do with this pandemic. And it’s a whole lot to do with who lives and who dies in this pandemic. Who gets sick, who doesn’t get sick, who gets treated, who doesn’t get treated.”

Reports by organisations such as ProPublica and Chicago’s WBEZ radio channel have highlighted the high number of people of colour becoming ill and dying from the disease. Experts say a number of reasons – poor diet, lack of access to healthcare and underlying health problems – are the reason.

In his comments, delivered as the Democratic hopeful was hoping to defeat Democratic rival Joe Biden in the Wisconsin primary, Mr Sanders said the numbers were stark.

“In Louisiana, 70 per cent of people who have died from Covid-19 are African Americans. But African Americans make up only about one third of the population of Louisiana.

“In Milwaukee, Wisconsin … twice as many black residents have tested positive compared to white residents, while comprising only 27 per cent of the population. In Chicago, African Americans make up 72 per cent of the coronavirus-related deaths, and yet account for only 29 per cent of the population.”

On Tuesday, as the total number of infections from the virus hit 380,000 and the death toll passed 12,000 Donald Trump was for the first time obliged to acknowledge the disparity.

“We’re doing everything in our power to address this challenge, it’s a tremendous challenge. It’s terrible,” he said at the White House.

Dr Deborah Birx, a member of Mr Trump’s taskforce, said African Americans were not more “susceptible” to coronavirus. “What our data suggests is that they are more susceptible to more difficult and severe disease and poorer outcomes,” she said.

Her colleague Dr Anthony Fauci said African Americans were already known to be more prone to illnesses like diabetes, hypertension and asthma, which can exacerbate coronavirus symptoms.

Dr Barbara Ransby, a professor of African American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said on Mr Sanders’s livestream that black Americans were often the “canary in the coal mine”.

“They are the communities that are first affected by a lot of the bad things that happen in this country, and they’re the community that is among the worst affected [by] horrible things like coronavirus,” she said.

Coronavirus in numbers

The livestream included several musical performances, including one by rapper Abhi The Nomad.

Dr Victoria Dooley, a family physician and health care activist from Michigan, said she was not surprised by the statistics Mr Sanders was talking about.

“African Americans make up only about 13 per cent of the population but we are 40 per cent of the homeless population,” she said. “So of course, you don’t have a home to live the shelter to be in for shelter in place, you’re going to be disproportionately impacted.”

She added: “The fact that African Americans are disproportionally incarcerated, is a huge factor.”

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