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African Americans In Louisiana Are Dying At An Alarming Rate During Pandemic


Coronavirus is killing African Americans at an alarming rate. It is happening in cities like Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee. It is happening in Louisiana. And in a moment, we'll talk to Louisiana's Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, who is a physician. Let's go first to his state. Louisiana has seen 500 deaths from COVID-19 - 70% have been African Americans. Here's Tegan Wendland from member station WWNO.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: Just a little over a month ago, Elroy James was riding high in Zulu's Mardi Gras morning parade, kissing babies and shaking hands. He's the president of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, the center of black culture in New Orleans. A month later, 20 of his club brothers have been hospitalized and five are dead.

ELROY JAMES: We have not been able to celebrate the lives of those of our members the way we would have traditionally done.

WENDLAND: No jazz funerals. No second lines. All he can do is console families over the phone, encourage them and pray for them. He's not alone. COVID-19 has killed many, many black people in Louisiana. During a press conference, Governor John Bel Edwards released data for the first time on the racial breakdown of coronavirus deaths, showing that at least 70% were of black people.


JOHN BEL EDWARDS: So that deserves more attention, and we're going to have to dig into that and see what we can do to slow that trend down.

WENDLAND: In Louisiana, there are many reasons for that trend. Preexisting conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and coronary heart disease disproportionately affect the black community, largely because of poverty and lack of access to medical services, problems that Congressman Cedric Richmond says are rooted in hundreds of years of systemic racism.

CEDRIC RICHMOND: There's no doubt that it's going to impact African American communities, our poor communities, worse.

WENDLAND: In Chicago, which has a much smaller black population, 70% of the people who've died of the coronavirus so far were black, according to WBEZ. Milwaukee is seeing similar trends. Joia Crear-Perry is a doctor who founded the National Birth Equity Collaborative. She says a lot of black people don't even know they're at risk.

JOIA CREAR-PERRY: We're seeing a lot of black men, a lot of younger people. I mean, you're seeing all the things that didn't - that you didn't see in some other countries play out in the U.S. because we have not created a social safety net for everyone.

WENDLAND: And in a state like Louisiana, where at least 8% of the people don't have insurance - a number that's even higher for minorities - folks might be reluctant to go to the hospital if they don't think it's that serious.

Congressman Richmond.

RICHMOND: At the end of the day, this is not some academic study; this is a life-or-death issue. And once and for all, I hope that this gives us the momentum to tackle health disparities across the board.

WENDLAND: Again and again, across America, this pandemic is exacerbating existing inequities. Unless you have a white-collar job that lets you work from home, you might be stuck going into work or without a job and with no way to pay rent. Allison Plyer is with the New Orleans Data Center, which is studying COVID death rates.

ALLISON PLYER: As we move forward, we have to really create a society that cares for everyone, even the most vulnerable, or else we will have a large portion of our society that is susceptible to these kinds of shocks.

WENDLAND: For his part, Elroy James will continue to support his Zulu community as they navigate this devastating time. And when it's all over, they'll throw a big, old second line for the brothers and sisters they've lost.

JAMES: We're going to put on something big and grand, as we do, but we're still in the planning stage. But it will be - certainly be a celebration of life.

WENDLAND: For now, no one knows when this bad dream will be over or how many black lives will be lost.

For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tegan Wendland is a freelance producer with a background in investigative news reporting. She currently produces the biweekly segment, Northshore Focus.