WASHINGTON, D.C. — While the coronavirus is impacting people of all ages, races, and ethnicities, it has also proven to be the latest example of the black community facing a disproportionate challenge.

  • Black Ohioans experiencing disproportionate impact from coronavirus
  • Ohio’s two black members of Congress discuss what can be done at the federal level
  • Experts say the legacy of racism has to be addressed for long-term change

Across Ohio, 13-percent of the population is black, and 82-percent is white.

But when you start talking about the coronavirus, that margin shrinks significantly.

As of Wednesday, the Ohio Health Department reported that black Ohioans make up 22-percent of coronavirus cases, while white Ohioans make up 49-percent.

Hospitalizations for the virus in Ohio come in at 29-percent black and 56-percent white.

And 16-percent of those killed by COVID-19 in Ohio have been black, while 72-percent have been white.

“We’re the people who have less access to health care, less resources, less ability to take time off because we tend to be more hourly workers,” Representative Marcia Fudge said in a phone interview last week. “And so I think that those things, combined with the fact that we just live in communities that make it almost impossible to socially distance, and we don’t have masks and gloves, and we are not being tested because we can’t get to the drive-thru testing facilities. They need to bring testing to our neighborhoods.”

Fudge, a Cleveland-area Democrat who represents the 11th Congressional District, is the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Columbus-area Democrat Joyce Beatty, who represents the 3rd Congressional District, is a current vice-chair.

The two women, who are Ohio’s only black members of Congress, said they are using their offices to push for minority-focused aid like increased SNAP benefits, relief for minority-owned businesses, and publicly available data collection of who is testing positive for coronavirus and what race they are. (Something Ohio has done, but other states have not)

“We want to make sure that everyone is safe, but when there are those disparities, we have to look at it and get to the bottom of it,” Rep. Beatty said in a recent interview over Zoom. “And we know it’s not just in health care, it’s in the economics of how much we’re paid, it’s in housing, it’s in the criminal justice system. And we’re looking at all of that, and there’s problems there.”

Dr. Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson, who works at Ohio State University, said without proper data categorized by race, it will be nearly impossible to know who to quarantine in communities that are already medically vulnerable.

“We need these tests, and we need the results of the tests stratified by race ethnicity so that we can know who is hit the hardest from coronavirus so we can funnel resources into those areas,” Sealy-Jefferson said.

She added that African Americans have a valid distrust in the medical community after years of unfair treatment, so messaging is key.

Both Sealy-Jefferson and Dr. Michael Fauntroy, who works at Howard University here in Washington, said Congress could help by investing federal dollars into short-term and long-term public health infrastructure in black communities, like building mobile testing centers for coronavirus and making primary care physicians more available in neighborhoods they’re not already in.

But they said a much deeper problem needs to be addressed — the legacy of racism.

“If we did a better job in eliminating racism and providing equal opportunity, we wouldn’t be having a conversation about the unique and particularly targeted impacts of this particular virus,” Fauntroy said. “We’d be talking about it in more global terms.”

Sealy-Jefferson added: “Anything short of actually dismantling the policies and practices and institutions that have been set up, that disproportionately impact communities of color, we won’t make real progress. It’ll just be a temporary fix, and it won’t be sustainable.”

Fudge, Beatty, and fellow Ohio Democrats Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D, 9th Congressional District) and Senator Sherrod Brown have all signed onto legislation that would require the Department of Health and Human Services to collect and report racial data on the coronavirus.