Public figures from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Madonna have declared that the coronavirus epidemic is the great equalizer. The phrase is echoed by those who want to believe this catastrophe can unite us as a country.
But COVID-19 does not put us all in the same boat, rich and poor, black and white. Quality healthcare and protection from disease has always depended on income and race. This has been true at least since the beginning of the 20th century.
Hartford is just one example of that disparity. For example, past smallpox and tuberculosis outbreaks took a significantly greater toll on the capital city’s black population than on higher income whites.
In March, 1918, Hartford medical staff took emergency steps to vaccinate 500 black residents against smallpox in two days. Six black men had already been put in a hospital isolation ward for the disease. The doctors could reach this large number of people since so many black families were forced to live in an overcrowded three-street radius.
The superintendent of the city’s health department was particularly concerned about possible infection of black women, most of whom were employed by white families to do housework. The daily newspaper, ignoring patient privacy, listed the name of every black person (but no whites) taken to the isolation hospital, along with their addresses.
The smallpox outbreak had gone undetected for four months, having been mistaken for chickenpox. According to a news report, “little attention was paid by the first patients to the illness,” when in fact a medical professional should have made the correct diagnosis.
In February, 1923, the overall death rate of black children in Hartford reached 76.5 for 1,000 births. The overall mortality rate was two-thirds lower, at 25 per 1,000 births. “The death rate in Hartford is too high for a well-ordered city,” according to officials.
Tuberculosis hits blacks hard
Tuberculosis presented itself in April, 1936. The death rate for this disease among white people had dropped sharply since 1886. That was good news, yet “the present rate among the Negro population is as high as the white rate 50 years ago, and is now 10 times as high as the white rate,” according to the Hartford Board of Health. Black residents made up about 4% of the city’s population, but 29% of the smallpox deaths.
The major vector of infectious diseases in Hartford came from drinking water, bad plumbing, and the yearly flooding of poor, river-adjacent neighborhoods. A 1922 survey showed that of 505 homes visited, 358 were rated in “fair” or “poor” condition. To be listed “fair,” a building could still lack indoor toilets, bathtubs, and electric or gas lights.
Fear of eviction, or an rent increase for repairs, stopped tenants from complaining about the dangerous, unsanitary rentals. According to an earlier study by the housing commission of New York City: “Hartford, with a population of only 79,850, has for its size the worst housing condition in the country… comparable only to very similar conditions in Boston.”
The great exacerbator
COVID-19 is not the great equalizer. It is the “great exacerbator,” according to M. Adams, a black feminist and the co-director of Freedom Inc. Her group identifies and challenges violence in all its forms as a public health scourge, especially the brutality directed at marginalized communities like transgender people, victims of domestic abuse, and those disenfranchised by racism.
A 2005 American Bar Association report found that “Black people simply are not receiving the same quality of health care that their white counterparts receive, and this second-rate health care is shortening their lives.”
Today, according to the Washington Post, “majority black counties in the United States have nearly six times the rate of [COVID 19] deaths as majority white counties. Latinos also have been disproportionately hard-hit.”
“Black and Latino workers are over-represented among the essential, the unemployed, and the dead,” in this pandemic, argues writer Adam Serwer in the Atlantic magazine. They are being sacrificed to restart the broken economy through premature “back to work” calls.
There is no empirical reason to believe that the racist impact of COVID-19 is any different than the epidemics of a century ago. No, we are not all in the “same boat,” but we are in the same storm. If you are black or brown, you may be stuck on a raft without a life jacket.
Steve Thornton is the author of Wicked Hartford (The History Press) among other books, and writes for the Shoeleather History of Hartford.