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As coronavirus spreads, Minnesota grapples with longtime racial inequality

Minneapolis Star Tribune logo Minneapolis Star Tribune 4/22/2020 By Marissa Evans and James Walsh, Star Tribune

When on his evening walk Minneapolis City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison got the call confirming his beloved grandmother died from coronavirus, all he could do was sit on a park bench and weep.

He had recently returned from attending his grandmother's funeral in Detroit. Knowing that "even at 82 " his "nana" — an independent, hilarious, gardening loving, "work until I drop dead" kind of woman — died from the illness angered him.

He thought about how her death and the lives of other people of color nationwide struck down by COVID-19 underscored deeply entrenched racial health and economic gaps.

"If you're someone who thought you had more time to solve these inequities, like maybe we could get it right in a generation or two, I think maybe this pandemic is proving that we don't have that much time," Ellison said. "Folks who deserve a remedy to systemic racism are going to die faster than the pace we're currently working at."

He pointed out that the north Minneapolis residents he represents are often from or have family in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and Gary, Ind., where similar issues around racial inequality with income, health, housing, unemployment and neighborhood air quality exists. He fears more coronavirus deaths among communities of color are coming.

As COVID-19 takes tens of thousands of lives in the United States, public health officials say communities of color, in particular, are being ravaged by the illness as the weeks and months go on.

In New York City, early data showed Hispanics accounting for 34% of COVID-19 deaths while comprising 29% of the city's population.

In Michigan, African Americans have accounted for a third of COVID-19 cases and four in 10 deaths, even though they comprise 14% of the population.

In Chicago, 72% of the deaths have been among the city's black residents, though they make up 29% of the population.

While the official number of people of color dying from COVID-19 in the Twin Cities is more proportional to their share of the population, the pandemic is forcing Minnesotans to reckon with longtime racial health and economic disparities.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said at a recent news conference that COVID-19 is "exacerbating" other issues that disproportionately affected communities of color before the pandemic. He announced the formation of a Community Resilience and Recovery work group to look at policymaking and other opportunities to help communities of color.

At first glance, the numbers of Minnesotans of color confirmed to have contracted the disease — and died because of it — don't appear out of proportion. Statewide, blacks comprise 13% of Minnesotans infected and just 3% of those killed; Asians, 4% and less than 1%, respectively. People of Hispanic ethnicity comprise 6% of people who have contracted COVID-19, 3% of those who died because of it.

But officials say the actual numbers of victims from the disease in Minnesota's minority communities is likely higher. One reason is because race and ethnic data is often self-reported and the state doesn't know the race or ethnicity of about 20% of those who have contracted the virus.

The other reason: Much of the testing to date has taken place in southeastern Minnesota, where the Mayo Clinic is located, or in nursing homes and other congregate-living facilities, where most residents are white. Without comprehensive testing in communities of color, many victims of the virus who are not hospitalized might never be counted.

Statewide, only about 1,500 people are tested each day, said Luisa Pessoa-Brandão, manager of Epidemiology, Research, and Evaluation at the Minneapolis Health Department. That means officials likely are missing the more mild cases that nonetheless help spread the disease in the inner cities.

Minneapolis Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant said she doesn't expect the official minority numbers to stay low for long. As in other cities, blacks and others with lower-paying, service jobs in the Twin Cities are less able to work from home. Social distancing can be tougher to achieve in higher density, low-income neighborhoods.

"I think we are fairly early in our outbreak compared to other communities (in the east and west)," Musicant said. "But we have similarities in terms of [economic and health] disparities, so I would not be surprised if COVID results are similar here too ... but it hasn't been documented yet."

Those differences may be slowly starting to show in Ramsey County. Blacks there make up 18% of known coronavirus cases and Asians comprise 9%. Still, the race of those afflicted is unknown in 18%, according to reports.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said officials here should feel a sense of urgency to fill in the blanks regarding the virus' impact on the inner city.

"We have a shortage of tests and the fact is, we can't say for certain what the virus is doing other than it's moving fast," he said. "We shouldn't wait to take action until after people get sick and die."

The heavy COVID-19 toll being paid by communities of color across the country reflects similar disparities in housing, health care and economic well-being that have existed for generations. Multigenerational distrust in doctors, hospital and medical research has also made communities of color wary of accessing care.

When Elie Farhat died this month at 92 from the coronavirus, he left the world alone, according to Elianne Farhat, his granddaughter,

The Lebanese immigrant spent much of his life rising above trying circumstances — he was orphaned at a young age and survived war and conflict in Lebanon before starting a new life in America. He was "a good grandpa who wanted the best for his family" and was known in the local Lebanese community for his quiet demeanor, comedic timing during a conversation and the backgammon games he set up in garages around their northeast Minneapolis neighborhood. But for him "to die with none of them around you" has been hard for the family to wrestle with.

"One of the biggest challenges in front of us is that there are no simple answers and the reason that we continue to have disparate outcomes across race in our state is because it's complicated and compounding layers of injustice that people are experiencing," Farhat said. "I don't know another path forward that isn't hard and complicated and that doesn't really force us to confront the set of assumptions we have about the world and how it operates."

Local outreach

Kelsey Dawson, who coordinates strategic engagement for Hennepin County, and Jillian Kyles, a county Human Services program manager, are working to reach the county's immigrant and minority communities to help them navigate the coronavirus crisis and connect with available services.

From distributing literature and setting up helpline messages in up to 19 languages to teams of workers going into inner city neighborhoods, outreach efforts are reinforcing social distancing among folks whose cultures value just the opposite. There are even videos coming soon about the importance of wearing masks.

"Social distancing is difficult for people who go to school together, whose community life is filled with summer gatherings in a park," Dawson said.

Communities of color are also vulnerable to the COVID-19 outbreak because of known higher rates of chronic health issues including obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Health experts say those chronic issues can exacerbate the illness, making it harder for the immune system to fight it off.

It's important to remember that communities of color are not predisposed to COVID-19 or any other diseases and they "haven't done anything wrong" to be more vulnerable, said Julie Nielsen, innovation group director with Northpoint Health & Wellness Center, a community health center in Minneapolis. She said the illness is a reminder of how seemingly mild health issues in white communities can be amplified in the black community due to longtime inequities.

"It's not like they're not taking care of themselves," Nielsen said. "We need to remember that there are generations of systemic marginalization in the communities where they haven't for generations been able to access health care at the same rate or access housing and all of the other things we need to thrive ... we need to remember that giving the same or equal amount of care and service to various groups won't result in the same outcomes."

Farhat pointed out that conversations on how race intersects with other aspects of life can be taken as personal attacks when they're not meant to be.

"Talking about people having that opportunity doesn't mean that a white person was intentionally crafting systems that made these negative impacts, it doesn't mean a white person isn't entitled to the same level of opportunity and joy that everyone else is," Farhat said. "I think when we're talking about institutional racism, structural racism, it's really important to be very clear that everybody, regardless of race, has the same ability to live joyful, healthy and abundant lives."

Marissa Evans • 612-673-4280

James Walsh • 612-673-7428


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