But then he hit the blacks with sudden ferocity. Many of the victims died alone, separated from their families. Hospital workers were baffled. The virus was unstoppable.
This is what Pernessa Seele saw when AIDS devastated the black community in the late 1980s. She then worked as an immunologist at a hospital in Harlem.
“This coronavirus is dangerous and relentless,” said Seele, founder and CEO of The Balm in Gilead, Inc., a non-profit organization that works with religious communities to eliminate health disparities. “It doesn’t matter if you have HIV. It will fight HIV for you – two viruses to control your death. “
“This makes the specter of Covid-19 even more frightening,” said Gregorio Millett, vice president and director of public policy for amfAR, Foundation for AIDS Research. “It places an additional burden on the people. It could be devastating. “
Being black can be bad for your health
“When white people get a cold, black people get pneumonia. “
It is a popular saying in the black community that reflects a historical pattern: whenever a disease afflicts America, it hits Black America even harder.
Black people are more likely than other Americans to have underlying health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease. Blacks are also statistically more likely to live in poverty, with less access to health insurance. And more are wary of healthcare providers.
This helps explain why black people have been disproportionately victims of HIV and AIDS. African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population but accounted for 42% of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
People are now living longer with HIV due to advances in treatment and drugs, but many blacks cannot afford these treatments or live in places where they are readily available, says Seele, of the Balm of Gilead .
“People are living longer with HIV, but if you don’t have access to treatment, you don’t live anymore,” she said.
The underlying health issues and limited access to treatment also partly explain why so many coronavirus victims are black. In Chicago, about 72% of Covid-19’s deaths have occurred among blacks, who represent only 30% of the city’s population.
“We are at the top of the totem pole in terms of disparities,” said bishop O.C. Allen III, activist and founder of the Vision Church of Atlanta. Allen, who has high blood pressure, said he recently spent eight days in hospital isolation to recover from the coronavirus.
HIV can make coronavirus more deadly
The prevalence of HIV infections also makes coronavirus a particularly deadly disease in the black community. HIV destroys the immune system of its victims and the coronavirus is particularly deadly for people with weakened immune systems.
For one, people living with HIV are more likely to develop type II diabetes, says Dr. Marjorie Innocent, senior director of health programs at NAACP.
“The reality is that HIV can also increase the risk of developing other chronic diseases that increase the likelihood of complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus,” said Innocent.
When asked if she could remember another time when the black community faced two deadly pandemics simultaneously, Innocent stopped before responding.
“Two incurable viruses that strike the African American population at the same time?” I can’t say I do it. “
Some community leaders fear that the coronavirus is already hindering the fight against HIV and AIDS.
“With this coronavirus, people might be afraid [to go to a hospital or clinic] to get tested for HIV, “said activist Allen.
If few black Americans are tested for HIV or the coronavirus, you could potentially have infected people who unknowingly spread the two diseases in the community.
Said Allen, “This creates the perfect storm of disproportionate numbers. “
There are reasons to hope
With regard to the HIV pandemic, there are reasons to be optimistic about stopping the spread of the coronavirus in the black community.
On the one hand, there was a stigma attached to AIDS victims – especially in the early 1980s – who did not exist in people diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Many blacks are exposed to Covid-19 because they hold service jobs, such as a grocery clerk or bus driver or nurse’s aide, and are not privileged to work from home. Today, Americans praise the courage of these workers, do not slander them as many have done with AIDS patients.
“President Trump has called it a war on the virus, and these are the people on the front lines,” said campaigner Allen. “We are the ones who deliver goods, work at the cash register. We are over there. “
In addition, many public health officials who are currently waging the country’s battle against Covid-19, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, are the same people who have helped reduce the number of deaths from AIDS, said Millett.
“It’s the silver lining,” says Millett. “We have successfully reversed one of the main epidemics of our lives, which is HIV. We already have. “
But some things will have to change
But for such efforts to have a chance of success, experts say we will need more data on the impact of the coronavirus on black patients.
This is why the NAACP and other groups are calling on more hospitals and public health officials to release a racial and ethnic breakdown of coronavirus victims, said Innocent. So far, this information has been patchy.
“It is very disturbing that it has taken so long for the data showing the disproportionate impact on African Americans to be released,” said Innocent.
Some also fear that even when health officials reject the coronavirus, blacks will be the last to benefit because they will not have access to rapid tests and advanced treatments.
“Even when we need these new innovations, the communities that need them most will not get them,” said Millett. “You see it over and over. “
Until more black Americans get out of poverty and get better medical care, they will continue to be at the mercy of pandemics like AIDS and Covid-19, say black activists and health leaders.
If that happens, it will be a dreadful rerun of what Seele has seen on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic – and something she dreads now.
“The death toll will continue to rise in the black community,” she said. “We will be excluded again. “