Caring for ‘the Beloved Community’ during Coronavirus

Bacterial culture in a petri dish. An upcoming article in the Journal of Healthcare for the Poor and Underserved states people of color today are caught in a “human petri dish” due to the coronavirus.

Nine years ago the Journal of Healthcare for the Poor and Undeserved published an article about how to protect vulnerable communities in the event of a pandemic. Yes, a pandemic.

That was in 2011, way before a pandemic reared its ugly and life-threatening head in the United States, infecting nearly 1 million people and killing over 56,000, per Johns Hopkins University coronavirus data. The playbook, according to authors Rueben C. Warren, Bailus Walker Jr., Sandy D. Maclin Jr., Stephanie Miles-Richardson, Willi Tarver, Crystal M. James, seemed simple: “The most vulnerable populations must be the priority groups for prevention and treatment.”

Except they weren’t in the coronavirus pandemic.

In the United States vulnerable populations often are ignored because they are on the margins of society. The experts called the vulnerable and susceptible “the Beloved Community,” a phrase attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but which also predates him.

“The Beloved Community reached beyond racial integration and the church to the interrelatedness of all human beings. … The quest for justice is central both to the notion of the Beloved Community and to the principles and practices of public health.”

I love the gentleness of the phrase “the Beloved Community,” the warmth of its embrace of all people. It also reminds me of the title of the book by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, My Beloved World. Having read the book, I know she was thinking warmly of her Puerto Rican community when she wrote it.

For years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified people into groups, including the vulnerable or susceptible. The journal authors state that the group includes “pregnant women, people with disabilities, people with chronic diseases, people with HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB), or hepatitis, inmates of prisons and jails, homeless people, immigrants and refugees, poor and single-parent families, and public housing residents, migrant-farm and other low-wage workers, racial and ethnic minority populations, tribes of the Indian country, and other vulnerable populations not listed elsewhere (e.g., people with limited English proficiency; people with a mental illness or a history of substance abuse; children; and seniors).” To this we must add healthcare workers, we now know.

The United States knew exactly which people would be most adversely affected by a pandemic such as the coronavirus. But it took governments a long time to get to that point. You might even say governments didn’t want to get to that point. Many didn’t want to know because they didn’t initially collect data on the nation’s Beloved Community.

In fact, initial resistance rested on the argument that people were “racializing” the pandemic. How else are we to know if we don’t separate the data? After all, most death records cite the race of the deceased. We soon learned that everything is not about race or ethnicity – except when it is.

The Journal of Healthcare for the Poor and Underserved, which is produced by Meharry Medical College, a historically black college, and published by Johns Hopkins University Press, is publishing another article in May titled, “The African American Petri Dish,” by Ronald Braithwaite, PhD and Rueben Warren, DDS, DrPH, MDiv, picking up where the 2011 article left off.

“Any virulent virus without a vaccine is bound to become a human petri dish in which people of color in the U.S. today are caught,” Braithwaite and Warren write. Johns Hopkins University Press has made the Journal of Healthcare for the Poor and Underserved open access for the duration of the pandemic.

The authors connected the dots to Latinos. “The age-adjusted death rate for COVID-19 is 22.8 per 100,000 people among Latinos in New York [City]. This is higher than the rate among African Americans (19.8), non- Hispanic [w]hites (10.2), and Asian Americans (8.4).”

Latinos are over-represented – 45.8 percent – in New York City’s five zip codes with the highest coronavirus cases, the authors state.

What’s more, Hispanics also are over-represented in Central Florida COVID-19 cases. In the tri-county area of Orange, Osceola and Seminole, Hispanics make up 38.5 percent of cases.

The mismatch between population and COVID-19 cases demands “attention and action,” the authors added.

Some of the early inaction is being rectified as state and local officials become aware of the uneven COVID-19 case results. But, unfortunately, the vulnerable and susceptible, many of them members of the Beloved Community, had to die first.

Here’s a look at local COVID-19 cases in the Beloved Community by county, as reported April 28 by the Florida Health Department.

  • Lake – Blacks 27 cases or 13% of all cases; Hispanics 64 cases or 30%
  • Orange – Blacks 174 cases or 13%; Hispanics 455 cases or 35%
  • Osceola – Blacks 37 cases or 8%; Hispanics 266 cases or 58%
  • Seminole – Blacks 47 cases or 13%; Hispanics 131 cases or 36%
  • Volusia – Blacks 61 cases or 14%; Hispanics 46 cases or 11%
  • TRI-COUNTY area

˜˜María Padilla, Editor

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