Is COVID-19 a crisis within a crisis for Black women?
Without access to the quality of care and advocacy we deserve, we won’t survive this.
by Maia Niguel Hoskin
“Racism affects so many things before the patient even gets to the clinical encounter. Both implicit bias and structural racism affect how women are cared for in the healthcare system. The cards are stacked against them.”, said the Vice-Chair of Equity and Safety in Obstetrics at Massachusetts General Hospital, Allison Bryant Mantha.
As the novel Coronavirus continues to wreak havoc in the U.S., we are confronted with navigating tides of misinformation, including traces of a bogus rumor that the black community was somehow immune to contracting the virus. Though statistics providing limited racial insight into its spread and fatality are slowly becoming available, black communities (and black women in particular) are impacted by COVID-19 at disproportionate rates.
What once was represented as a “baby boomer virus” is quickly revealing itself to be one that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of age. While I stayed at home worrying about how the virus would impact those I love, America rested on the reassurance that we were at minimal risk.
That reassurance was short-lived when the first case of community spread reared its ugly head in Northern California, just weeks after making its first appearance in America. Black communities are being ravaged by the virus but anti-blackness is the reason why these startling numbers are just coming to light.
In Milwaukee, blacks make up almost half of the confirmed cases and over 75 percent of deaths related to the virus. In Michigan, 40 percent of confirmed cases are members of the black community despite only making up 14 percent of the state’s population. Numbers are being released that indicate similar in Illinois, North Carolina, and New Orleans.
For black women especially, who have become bedmates to racial and gender-based medical violence for centuries, this glimpse into another potentially deadly reality is both eerily familiar and terrifying.
My family has a history of cancer, with generations of women specifically battling it. Two of my cousins and one aunt died from breast cancer before turning 50, and my mother lost her fight to colon cancer when she was 47.
I live on high alert and am hyper-sensitive about any and every new lump that I find. I’m petrified that I might share their same fate – not having the opportunity to grow old with my husband as we watch our daughter grow into adulthood. Years from now, what will statistics reveal about how the virus impacted black women? What did it do to me and the women I love?
While my family history shapes my anxiety, research does as well.
Black women forty years old and up have higher rates of breast cancer than white women and are 40 percent more likely to die from the disease. Similar health disparities exist among black women related to maternal death, cervical cancer, and sickle cell disease. Black women are also regularly ignored by their physicians while expecting to manage their pain, experience the brunt of racism and sexism combined by being paid less and have the highest prevalence of asthma out of all other racial and gender groups.
Recent data was released from Rubix Life Sciences, a biotech firm, which suggests that blacks with various symptoms connected to the virus were less likely to be tested than whites. That fact coupled with the reality that black women are placed within oppressive structures that deem us invisible and unworthy of being heard make it necessary for black women to be our own advocates and experts. Without access to the quality of care and advocacy we deserve, we won’t survive this.
Earlier this year Tashonna Ward, a 25-year-old teacher, died after being held in a waiting room for over two hours despite complaints of severe chest pain and shortness of breath. These tragic illustrations of the invisibility of black women are not new and further highlight that we deserve better.
Given the subjective nature of coronavirus symptoms and the presence of racism and sexism in healthcare, it stands to question if the invisibility of black women in America will inevitably lead to us being among the greatest impacted by the virus. I’m constantly reconciling between my belief in the prevailing goodness of others – that we will come out of this historic crisis unified across race and gender and a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach that the world’s current turmoil will reveal nothing more than loss, pain, and yet another iteration of the invisibility of black women.
This is not a dramatic attempt to elicit fear or trepidation. It is; however, a reaffirmation that, as black women, we have to carry, protect, and advocate for ourselves in spaces that were not designed with us in mind. We must continue to build, unify, and clarify our voice in spaces that would otherwise render us silent.
We must make ourselves seen, acknowledged, and respected in spaces that would prefer us unseen. Our voice is not too loud, our presence is not too much, and we must continue to fight for the promotion of our health. Our lives and the lives of our future generations depend on it.
Dr. Maia Niguel Hoskin is a college professor of graduate-level counseling, freelance writer, public speaker, and a researcher of all things race, mental health, and social media. A therapist and Los Angeles native, she lives with her husband, adorable daughter, and two dogs. Maia has been writing on issues related to race and mental health for over six years and has published in numerous scholarly and non-scholarly publications.