SHAUN KING: Seven Reasons Why African Americans Are at a Higher Risk of Contracting the Coronavirus

Last month, as news of the coronavirus started to spread, so many people on my social media timelines were saying that it looked like Black folk couldn’t get it. It’s a foolish conclusion, I know, but at the time, the epicenters of the virus were almost exclusively among white and Asian countries and communities. Now, experts believe that the United States, not China, Italy, or Spain, will have the most cases worldwide in about ten days. As it spreads across the country, I want to share seven reasons why African Americans are actually at a much higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.

1. The virus appears to spread quickly in crowded cities. I have seen this with my own eyes in my home borough of Brooklyn and in New York City as a whole: New York City simply was not built for social distancing. It’s nearly impossible to practice it safely in New York. We live close together, we shop very close together, and we have nearly 9 million residents. African Americans continue to live in the most densely populated cities across the country. Even in smaller to mid-range cities, African Americans are often one of the largest populations of the more crowded city center.

2. African Americans are one of the least likely ethnic groups to be able to work from home. All over the country, as people are ordered to isolate themselves and work from home, millions of African Americans work in professions where this is simply not possible. We work in restaurants. We work at grocery stores. We dominate the staffs of hospitals from the security guard at the front desk to the cleaning crews to the nursing staff. We are sanitary workers, USPS, UPS, and FedEx workers. We are cashiers, food delivery workers, Uber and Lyft drivers. And if we don’t keep working, our bills don’t get paid and our families don’t eat.

3. African Americans working in many of the jobs above are also one of the least likely ethnic groups to have paid sick leave for themselves or paid sick leave for family members. As a consequence, folk have to go to work sick every single day. It’s dangerous, yes, but people know they will lose their jobs or not be able to pay their bills if they don’t show up. This is why we must advocate for a universal paid sick leave policy. The United States is one of the only nations in the world to not have it.

4. African Americans are one of the most uninsured and underinsured ethnic groups nationwide. Because of this, folk are slow to go to the doctor and some people just downright don’t go. They can’t afford it – and have often gone years at a time without visiting the doctor. Of course, during the coronavirus pandemic, this is catastrophic because people will often have symptoms and go weeks before they are tested, leaving themselves in much worse shape as a result. This is not just true of the coronavirus, but if you don’t have health insurance, or have a horrible policy with outrageous co-pays and deductibles, and you opt not to go to the doctor for respiratory problems or sinus infections, or strep throat — all of those health problems would only make the coronavirus worse for you and those around you. This is why we must fight for universal healthcare and a plan like Medicare for All. I hate to sound like a broken record, but this is what the rest of the developed world already has.

5. Doctors routinely under-diagnose African Americans and fail to take health concerns as seriously as they do for white folk. This isn’t my hunch or a conspiracy theory. Study after study has shown that the medical needs, concerns, requests and reports of African Americans are routinely just not taken as seriously as they should be. It’s disgusting. But it’s true — and has been for generations. This creates a dangerous cycle of African Americans not feeling like we can trust doctors, then going less as a result, which only compounds the underlying problems.

6. African Americans, pre and post coronavirus, have one of the highest unemployment rates nationwide. Again, this creates a vicious cycle. Because the United States is the only developed nation in the world that ties your health insurance to where you work, meaning that you lose your health insurance when you lose your job, you can directly tie unemployment to a myriad of poor health outcomes. Unemployment will also mean a complete inability to buy things like masks, gloves, disinfectants and more. Again, I have to say it, this is why we must have universal healthcare that is not tied to employment. No other nation in the world ties healthcare or health insurance to the job you do or don’t have.

7. As we are seeing at Rikers Correctional Facility in New York, jails and prisons are sitting ducks for the coronavirus. Viruses and bacterial infections always spread like wildfire in prisons for so many horrible reasons. First, everybody is forced to live, work, bathe, and eat in close proximity to one another. The very architectural designs of jails and prisons make avoiding close social contact virtually impossible. Beyond that, the medical care offered to incarcerated people is some of the worst in the world. Furthermore, African Americans are not just incarcerated more than other ethnic groups, we also serve in so many of the staff capacities in these facilities.

The truth is that I could’ve made a list of dozens of reasons why African Americans are at high risk of contracting the coronavirus, but it goes back to the old saying that in America, when “white folk sneeze, Black folk get the flu.” Whatever white folk experience in this country, it almost universally hits African Americans twice as hard.


At the end of each story we publish about the coronavirus, we are now sharing the following information:

Coronavirus 411

Coronavirus, officially named SARS-CoV-2 but also known as COVID-19, is a novel virus that causes a number of respiratory illnesses, including lung lesions and pneumonia. The virus spreads easily from person to person through the air when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes.

COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, China, has spread to some 172 countries. More than 436,000 people around the world have become infected and more than 19,000 people have died. On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic. President Donald Trump declared the COVID-19 outbreak a national emergency on March 13.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can take between two to 14 days to appear. The CDC recommends calling your doctor if you think you have been exposed to COVID-19 and develop symptoms, including fever, cough and difficulty breathing. If you also experience persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse and bluish lips or face, seek medical attention immediately.

In order to keep yourself and others safe, be sure to wash your hands frequently, practice social distancing and avoid touching your face. The CDC is recommending that gatherings of 50 people or more be canceled for the next eight weeks. Click here for information on how to prepare for a quarantine.