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Being Black in Covid-19

Black Americans were in crisis already

The Covid-19 pandemic is real and its effects will be long lasting; leaving no community, no family, no individual untouched by its impact.

We’re often told that we’re all in this together—but our experience of Covid-19 is not the same.

The stark evidence of inequalities that exist within our system has never been clearer. Communities made vulnerable by systemic failures and discrimination face higher barriers and challenges to accessing healthcare and essential services. If there was ever a moment to pause, listen and demand justice and dignity for all, it’s now.

Phillip Agnew, organizer, artist at Smoke Signals Studio in Miami, and co-founder of Dream Defenders, shares his insight on being Black in Covid-19. To learn more about Phillip and his work, follow him @philsomething.

Being Black in Covid-19: Black Americans were in crisis before Covid-19

We are now two months into an American coronavirus response that has been disastrous by all accounts for Black Americans already in crisis. It is said that when America catches a cold, Black people catch the flu. Which is to say that when America catches a virus, Black America catches hell. Black Americans are facing the brunt of the many layers of this current economic, political, social and economic crisis. It is not by chance. The circumstances that led to this moment are by design; they are the effects of racist policies conjured by corporations that consistently put profit before the lives of the poor in this country.

Black people have been in crisis since our lungs first stung with American air. We are always a paycheck away from a crisis, or a broken taillight away from a crisis, or an arrest away from a crisis, or a hurricane or a slip and fall away from a crisis. As of May 2020, statistics show that Black Americans are disproportionately contracting and dying from Covid-19. Those numbers are also reflected across the pond as Black people are more than four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white people, according to official figures on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in England and Wales.

The virus is most dangerous and deadly for people with pre-existing conditions and poverty is a pre-existing condition for millions of Black Americans. Physically, Black Americans face higher rates of hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and lung disease. These diseases are caused and compounded by both high levels of stress and low access to quality food, water and healthcare. It is stressful to be Black in America: the constant threat of death, unemployment, arrest, financial precarity and intra-community violence weighs on our minds and bodies. Couple that with living in food and health "deserts"—neighborhoods where access to essential fruits, vegetables and care are non-existent—and you've got a recipe for the disaster that Covid-19 has exposed.

Black Americans are more likely to work "essential" jobs or in the "gig" or "informal" economy if they have work at all. We are also less likely to work from home. Our jobs require closer contact and many times—because this country places no true value on "essential" work and even less on the people who perform it—there is no investment in protective items like gloves or masks. Those working in the "gig" economy work daily, delivering food or other items with no insurance or support. And those working in the "informal" economy selling marijuana or other essential items on the street face the same choice between close contact and putting food on their tables.

Black Americans make up a disproportionate number of people behind bars at a rate of five times the number of white Americans. Once you become a prisoner in this country, you become invisible, disposable, worthless. Coronavirus is spreading fast in prisons and jails and Black inmates will continue to face the harshest impacts.

Lastly, millions of Black Americans cannot "shelter in place" or "social distance" as housing disparities, gentrification and the accompanying rising costs of rent have forced many onto the streets, or in living arrangements with multiple families in cramped quarters overseen by slumlords.

These are just a few examples of the varied ways that Black life in America has not just been worsened but revealed by the Covid-19 crisis (I've not even mentioned the rampant police brutality in the name of "social distancing enforcement" that has seen hundreds of Black people arrested and beaten or the insufficient "stimulus" payments that barely scratch the surface of living expenses or rent payments).

Dr. Armen Henderson and the Dream Defenders have been providing free testing, tents, food and supplies to Miami's houseless community.

Dr. Armen Henderson talking with the team of Dream Defenders.

Still, organizers have used the urgency of this moment to highlight the failings of capitalism. Both the racist, cunning inhumanity of the corporate class, and the solutions that we have championed for decades: universal healthcare, housing guarantee, decarceration, abolition of the police, federal jobs guarantees, legalization of marijuana, an end to the war on drugs and a #peoplesbailout. We are making demands of local, state and federal government all while building mutual aid networks to feed, clothe, test and house our communities; doing the work that our government should be doing.

If there is one thing that being Black in America has taught us, is that this will not be the last time that we have to fight to stay alive. We have been here before. For the past few months, millions of Americans have been feeling the isolation, the worry, the nervousness, the anxiety, the pain, the lack of control over their tomorrows that we Black Americans have felt for generations. Which is also to say that we know what must be done today and the next day and the next. In the midst of even this crisis, there springs opportunity and we continue to organize to protect each other and build the power to prevent these crises from having the devastating effects that we see today. The old ways are dying, new ways are being born and Black Americans are the midwives.


Phillip Agnew, Organizer, Artist: @philsomething

Smoke Signals Studio: @smokesignalsmia

Hear their stories, support and take action. Donate to the work of the Dream Defenders and the Movement for Black Lives’ COVID19 Mutual Aid Fund.

This article is part of a series on Covid-19 in communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Explore the rest of the stories here.