The Color of a Pandemic: COVID-19, Poverty, and Race in New Orleans

“NewOrleans2014-40” by Tim_Childers is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“> Credit: Tim Childers va Creative Commons

(Publisher’s note: The report referenced in the opinion piece was released by The Data Center in May 2018. The report was titled “Advancing Health Equity in New Orleans: Building on Positive Change in Health.) 

When the word of the Coronavirus first made its way to the ears of many black people, it was met with light-hearted skepticism. ‘Black people can’t get it’ was a phrase uttered by many from the barbershops to Facebook timelines. The mythology of the power of melanin had given many black people a false sense of security. A virus with a Chinese origin, a European epicenter, and relatively low numbers in Africa bolstered the idea of a black immunity. Then reality dismissed the idea in dramatic fashion.

Black NBA players, actors, and musicians begin being diagnosed…replacing the myth with anxiety, stress, and in some ways, panic. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, the annual Mardi Gras celebrations were being overshadowed by two unfortunate accidental deaths during two popular parades. However, the party continued. Over a million tourists visited the City of New Orleans during the 2020 carnival season. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets, shoulder to shoulder, arms raised vying for coveted Mardi Gras throws. Two weeks after the last revelers boarded their plane home, Louisiana confirmed its first case of COVID-19. As of the date of this writing, nearly 1,000 people have tested positive for the virus in the City of New Orleans.

Now the city is in a state of crisis. Hospitals and urgent care facilities have been flooded with people displaying symptoms of the virus. There are shortages of medical supplies and staff. This has left the city vulnerable especially the black population.  The trifecta of poverty, healthcare inequality, and a culture of communal cohabitation makes the virus a devastating reality for many black New Orleanians. Twenty five percent of all New Orleanians live in poverty (The Data Center). Fifty percent of  black children under the age of 18 in the city live in poverty (National Urban League). The median income for African American households in the city is around $26,000. Black male unemployment is nearing 50% and the unemployment rate for all of black Louisianans it’s nearly twice that of whites.

Black New Orleanians are disproportionately employed in the gig economy such as driving for Uber or Lyft, and working in hotels and restaurants. This leaves many without adequate health insurance or any coverage at all. Becoming ill from a virus that can take weeks to relent and could require lengthy hospital stays would mean devastation on the already economically depressed population. Furthermore, in the current state of lockdown, many black New Orleanians are facing the prospect of being laid off and without pay for the foreseeable future. This only compounds an already horrific economic crisis.

According to the Data Center, discrimination in the healthcare system in the city of New Orleans is pervasive and historic. “The report points out that there is a  25 year difference in life expectancy between people who live in New Orleans zip code 70124 and 70112 neighborhoods only 5 miles apart, but where residents are 3% and 75% black respectively,” reported in May 2018 in reference to a study conducted by The Data Center on inequities in the city’s health system. Pre-existing conditions that could increase the mortality rate of the virus, such as asthma, diabetes and hypertension are higher among black New Orleanians according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The high rate and ease of transmission of the virus may also prove particularly problematic for black New Orleanians who have historically shared living space with many relatives. Oftentimes black households consist of extended family members. The rising cost of housing in the city has increased this practice making social distancing a difficult and almost impossible task.

Without adequately addressing the underlying issues of poverty, healthcare inequality, and the rising cost of housing in the city, the federal stimulus may prove to be of little help to black New Orleanians and COVID-19 may be the final blow to an already fragile community.

Publisher’s note: The Data Center recently released a new report related to Covid-19 and demographics in New Orleans.  The full findings from the report, entitled Demographics of New Orleans and early COVID-19 Hot Spots in the U.S, can be found here

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