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COVID-19 and Detroit: How racial inequity turned deadly in a city amid a comeback

Detroit Free Press logo Detroit Free Press 4/20/2020 Tammy Joyner, Special to the Detroit Free Press
a man standing in a parking lot: Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan holds a press conference in front of the Joe Dumars Fieldhouse at the COVID-19 regional testing facility on the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit on Saturday, March 28, 2020. © Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan holds a press conference in front of the Joe Dumars Fieldhouse at the COVID-19 regional testing facility on the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit on Saturday, March 28, 2020.

For Detroit, the past 40 days have been a cruel culmination of what has been simmering below the surface of the city for more than 40 years.

In a city used to hard knocks, COVID-19 is a beast. 

“We’ve lost 500 people in five weeks. I’ve never experienced anything like this,” said Mayor Mike Duggan who ran the Detroit Medical Center, southeastern Michigan’s largest health care provider, before becoming mayor in 2014.

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The virus has hit every socioeconomic stratum in Michigan’s largest city, killing or sidelining high-ranking and rank-and-file police officers, politicians, community activists, entertainers, media personalities, bus drivers, health care staff, and churchgoers. Families have been devastated. Everyone, it seems, knows someone who has it — or has loved someone who has died from it.

“It’s like a dagger in my heart,” said state Rep. and Detroit Caucus Chair Sherry Gay-Dagnogo who in the last month has lost a political colleague, a deacon at her church, a friend and her older sister to the virus. Her sister died last Tuesday after two weeks on a respirator.

Coronavirus hit Detroit as the city was enjoying a long-overdue economic renaissance. It blew in and stopped the bustle of a revived downtown that buzzed with new businesses, entertainment venues and trendy restaurants, while at the same time violently assaulting the neighborhoods that the revival had not yet touched. 

“Detroit was making strides and is making strides,” said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP. “Now through this pandemic, it’s been put on pause.” 

Several members of Anthony’s 2,500-member church, Fellowship Chapel, have COVID-19. And the pastor recently lost his great-uncle, his great-uncle’s wife, his sister-in-law and niece to the virus. A cousin is in the hospital and on a ventilator. 

a sign in front of a building: Fellowship Chapel in Detroit. © Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press Fellowship Chapel in Detroit.

“It’s impacted our family greatly,” he said. He is not alone.

As the coronavirus pandemic digs in, America’s racial, social, economic and medical disparities are laid bare in the city that autos and music built. As of Wednesday, black Detroiters accounted for three out of four COVID-19 deaths in the city, according to data collected by the Free Press.

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Wayne County, where Detroit is the county seat, has had more deaths than any other U.S. county outside of New York City. Blacks, meanwhile, are only 14 percent of Michigan’s population. As of Sunday afternoon, blacks accounted for 33% of the coronavirus cases in the state, and 40% of the deaths. 

Medical experts point to high rates of pre-existing conditions like asthma, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, for the deadly impact of the coronavirus on Detroit, but cultural experts say there is more at play.

“Racism is embedded in the recipe that created the United States of America. Until we deal with that, we’ll continue to see disparities like COVID-19 because when crises occur, inequities are not reduced instead they’re exacerbated,” said Rashawn Ray, who studies and writes extensively about race and social policy at The Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank. 

This 21st-century plague is cruelest to those with the fewest resources and options, a reality which has played out all of the country, especially in cities like Detroit that are mostly poor and primarily black. 

Social conditions enable virus spread

The virus has its choice of hosts in this largely working-class city. 

Many residents work "essential” jobs without work-from-home or social distancing options. They stock grocery store shelves, deliver takeout, cut hair, provide care in nursing homes, clean buildings or deliver people to those jobs. 

a man standing next to a suitcase: Calvin Taylor, 58, a City of Detroit Public Works employee is considered an essential employee during the Coronavirus outbreak. Taylor stops to pick up illegally dumped trash Thursday, March, 26, 2020 on Detroit's westside. © Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press Calvin Taylor, 58, a City of Detroit Public Works employee is considered an essential employee during the Coronavirus outbreak. Taylor stops to pick up illegally dumped trash Thursday, March, 26, 2020 on Detroit's westside.

Last month, bus driver Jason Hargrove angrily vented in a video that went viral about a coughing passenger putting him and other riders at risk. Hargrove died of the virus two weeks later.

“There are people living in Detroit going to the suburbs to work in a grocery store for pennies on the dollar,” Ray said. “They have to take buses and public transit. By restricting public transit, more people are together bringing their COVID-19 back to their local communities.”

More: Health and race disparities in America have deep roots: A brief timeline

More: Family ravaged by coronavirus begged for tests, hospital care, but was repeatedly denied

As soon as the virus officially showed up in Michigan on March 10, and the primary recommendation for stopping its spread was proper and frequent hand-washing, thoughts quickly turned to the issue of Detroit’s homes without running water, anywhere from 3,000 to 9,000 according to city data. How do you fight a virus without running water? 

Detroit launched a program to restore water service for $25 a month during the pandemic and contacted household whose water had been shutoff for nonpayment. The city says almost all of those homes have water restored. But many activists say the city never should have shut customers' water off in the first place.

Water affordability is just one issue laid bare by the pandemic that Councilman Scott Benson said he routinely sees in his district on the city’s east side.

a young boy riding a skateboard down a sidewalk in front of a building: Kirk Myers, 32, of Detroit prepares to leaflet a house on Seminole on Detroit's Eastside with a recorded water shutoff. The Detroit Water and Sewage Department is restoring any such shutoffs Wednesday, March 25, 2020 due to the Novel Coronavirus outbreak. © Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press Kirk Myers, 32, of Detroit prepares to leaflet a house on Seminole on Detroit's Eastside with a recorded water shutoff. The Detroit Water and Sewage Department is restoring any such shutoffs Wednesday, March 25, 2020 due to the Novel Coronavirus outbreak.

“I have a high level of poverty in my district. My issues almost always revolve around eliminating poverty and addressing blight,” Benson said. “This just brings to light what we knew and what we’ve been fighting for.”

Benson is working with members of Congress and leaders in other major cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago to enact a national water affordability program. It would be modeled on an existing federal program that assists low-income families with heating utility costs. Ideally, the program would receive $3.5 billion annually, and Detroit would receive $50 million for assistance to residents and water infrastructure needs, Benson said. The City Council unanimously approved a resolution last week urging Congress to act.

The coronavirus hasn’t bypassed the powerful, the well-to-do or the well-connected in this city. Detroit Police Chief James Craig is recovering. So are Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, state Reps. Tyrone Carter and Karen Whitsett. The Rev. Horace Sheffield III contracted the virus soon after a trip to New York in March to meet with the Rev. Al Sharpton.

In addition to fighting the deadly virus, many black Detroiters have faced resistance and frustration from the very system that is supposed to be helping them. 

Retired Wayne County Judge Wendy Baxter spent the last month trying to reach her doctor to get tested, but she said, she “couldn’t get through.” 

“I’d lost my sense of smell and taste. It was worrisome because it’s listed as symptoms of COVID-19,” Baxter recalled. 

As a precaution, Baxter “squirreled away in the basement of my house” to avoid infecting family members. She has spent the past month trying to get tested and has yet to be tested. In the meantime, her sense of smell and taste has returned.

“I don’t know if I’ll pursue (getting tested),” Baxter said. “I’m not going to get in the way of people who are more sick than me. That seems selfish.”

Still, the judge has questions.

“Now what would they be testing me for? The antibodies? The question for me is am I a carrier? Was I a carrier? Am I immune now?”

At 67, Baxter sought the test because she feared she was at high risk. Also, she was very active in her community. 

“I’m a member of the dance community in Detroit and we’ve lost about 30 members so far. I knew I had been out dancing. So I had some concerns that weren’t far-fetched.”

At the same time, Baxter’s family — her pregnant daughter, her husband and their eight-month-old son — had driven in from New York to stay with Baxter and her other daughter. Baxter also is the chief caregiver to her 95-year-old mother who lives nearby.

“Whoever dropped the ball," she said, "it could have been fatal to me and the others I was quarantined with.”

Baxter’s story is just a glimpse of the exasperation many people, not only Detroiters, experienced in the beginning stages of the pandemic, when information about the virus was inconsistent, and testing was scarce.  

“We are reaping the whirlwind on this in terms of the number of deaths in our community,” Anthony said. “We’ve been calling out health care disparities for years. We need more testing, more access to tests. They need to be in local neighborhoods and the tests should be free. There should be no barriers. The more people you test, the more you know.” 

One doctor who has worked in Detroit for nearly 40 years called the current crisis “a perfect storm to highlight the real-life situations people are dealing with.”

“Something that should not have had the toll it has had has became catastrophic,” said Dr. Shlomo Mandel. 

The devastation this virus has caused in his city gnaws at Duggan.

“You know, it’s the kind of thing you ask yourself every day ‘Is there something you could have done earlier? Something you could have done better? Are we doing everything we can?'

"But you know, I’m not any different than a lot of mayors and governors in this country,” the mayor said. “You can’t help but feel enormously responsible and ask yourself everyday: 'Am I doing everything I can to change the direction of this?' ” 

Historical neglect surfaces amid coronavirus pandemic 

How did Detroit become so vulnerable? It didn’t happen overnight and the virus isn’t the sole culprit, experts say. How the coronavirus pandemic has impacted Detroit is a symptom of a larger systemic ailment: mistrust, mistreatment, neglect and economic inequities. 

Over a century ago, southern blacks headed north to evade lynchings and find better jobs, Ray said. By 1950, more than six in 10 blacks in Detroit were newcomers in a city of nearly two million. They were mostly from the South. The work was precarious and racially-stratified, but the auto industry paved the way to the middle-class for black Detroiters. By the late 1970s, one in 50 blacks in the United States was working in the auto industry. 

“Detroit was once viewed as the crown jewel of black America,” said Ray, who spent time in Detroit while a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. 

a group of people standing around each other: An African American man being confronted and frisked by police in Detroit during the riots in 1967. © Tony Spina, Detroit Free Press An African American man being confronted and frisked by police in Detroit during the riots in 1967.

Over the decades white flight, social unrest, a legacy of structural racism and redlining that relegated blacks to certain parts of the city, as well as the auto industry’s economic ebbs and flows, have taken its toll on Detroit, now more than 80 percent black. 

“In the late 1960s when the riots happened, millions of dollars of properties, businesses, and homes were destroyed and never replaced,” Ray said.

Detroit stalled, while cities like Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and others bounced back and even flourished after economic setbacks.

“In the 1980s you started to see jobs disappear and continue (to disappear) into the '90s,” Ray said. “Detroit had one of the highest rates of technological displacement and the lowest rate of jobs (replacement).”

Many middle-class and well-to-do black families have moved north of the city during the last 20 years to more affluent suburbs. 

Many of the resources and amenities — urgent care facilities, national grocery store chains — prevalent in other cities are scarce in Detroit. 

“As a longtime physician, I’ve seen the decline,” Mandel said. “It’s very, very sad. It’s been neglected by a lot of people who haven't invested financially or culturally. COVID is a symptom. It’s not the problem. It started long before. It’s almost like an old house. If you don’t paint it or maintain it, it becomes very susceptible.”

a man holding a wine glass: In this 1950's file photo released by the National Archives, a black man included in a syphilis study has blood drawn by a doctor in Tuskegee, Ala. Historic failures in government response to disasters and emergencies, medical abuse, neglect and exploitation have jaded generations of black people into a distrust of public institutions. Some might call it the Tuskegee effect, referring to the U.S. government's once-secret syphilis study of black men in Alabama that one study shows later reduced their life expectancy due to distrust of medical science. (National Archives via AP, File) © AP In this 1950's file photo released by the National Archives, a black man included in a syphilis study has blood drawn by a doctor in Tuskegee, Ala. Historic failures in government response to disasters and emergencies, medical abuse, neglect and exploitation have jaded generations of black people into a distrust of public institutions. Some might call it the Tuskegee effect, referring to the U.S. government's once-secret syphilis study of black men in Alabama that one study shows later reduced their life expectancy due to distrust of medical science. (National Archives via AP, File)

It doesn’t help that mistrust of government and the medical field are common in the black community, with reason.

The historical mistreatment and neglect of African Americans by organized medicine is well-documented. Consider the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment of the 1930s, where hundreds of poor black men in Tuskegee, Alabama, were tricked by the U.S. government and used in a 40-year medical experiment. In the '50s, the cancer cells of 31-year-old Henrietta Lacks were taken without her permission, ultimately becoming one of the most important tools in modern medicine. Yet blacks like Lacks struggled for decades to access the health care advances that her cells helped to create.    

“We have Tuskegee and Henrietta Lacks and a host of other scientific studies we don’t know about that led people to not trust,” Ray said. “Black people are continually mistreated by the federal government. As a way to cope with that (blacks tend to think) ‘these sorts of things aren’t going to necessarily affect us in the same way.’ It’s the same reason why black people don’t (tend) to call the police. Black men who know about the Tuskegee (syphilis experiment) are less likely to go to the doctor and that’s happening now.”

On Friday, Duggan acknowledged the issue.

“I spent nine years running the Detroit Medical Center. Overcoming the racial gap in this country and health care is a challenge. It is something everybody who worked there worked on every single day.” 

Despite Detroit’s systemic disparities in health care, education and access to good-paying jobs, the city’s post-bankruptcy revitalization too often has focused on redevelopment and new attractions as opposed to lifting its residents out of poverty, Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield said.

The coronavirus pandemic’s devastation in Detroit has further revealed the disparities facing residents, Sheffield said, particularly black Detroiters.

a young girl riding a skateboard down a street: Two women head back to their apartments after getting food given out by Gleaners Community Food Bank along with Matrix Human Services at the Matrix facility in Detroit, Michigan on Friday, April 3, 2020 for their bi-weekly food distribution to families in need. Long lines had formed when the distribution opened at 2 pm for the three hour food giveaway. Some of the items given away were milk, peanut butter, canned goods, rice and a variety of fruits and vegetables. The food giveaway continues on April 17th and May 1. © Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press Two women head back to their apartments after getting food given out by Gleaners Community Food Bank along with Matrix Human Services at the Matrix facility in Detroit, Michigan on Friday, April 3, 2020 for their bi-weekly food distribution to families in need. Long lines had formed when the distribution opened at 2 pm for the three hour food giveaway. Some of the items given away were milk, peanut butter, canned goods, rice and a variety of fruits and vegetables. The food giveaway continues on April 17th and May 1.

“We can’t revitalize this city without addressing this issue of poverty,” she said. “We can do better, and I think passing sound policies that help shrink the socioeconomic disparities is how we get there.”

Sheffield said she has pursued and passed legislation to close the gaps. A couple of her more ambitious proposals — an income-based water affordability plan and a requirement to hire more Detroiters on construction projects — have not passed yet. But she was behind an ordinance striving to ease access to property tax assistance. She also helped establish an affordable housing trust fund task force and fund it with $2 million.

“I tuned in to one of the White House conferences where they kind of targeted African-Americans in the sense that we weren’t taking (coronavirus) serious. But I don’t particularly agree with that. I think that, again, it’s the overall issues that creates these underlying health conditions,” Sheffield said.

Last Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the creation of a task force to examine how and why the virus has hit the African-American community in Detroit, Michigan and nationally. It will be led by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist.

Detroit fights back

The former Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit has been converted into a drive-through coronavirus testing site. It serves Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties which account for more than 80 percent of Michigan’s COVID cases. 

a stop sign in front of a building: Friday, March, 27, 2020 marks the first day of testing at the Covid-19 testing facility at the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit. Personnel help to set up the tents testing facility outside of the Joe Dumars Field House. © Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press, Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press Friday, March, 27, 2020 marks the first day of testing at the Covid-19 testing facility at the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit. Personnel help to set up the tents testing facility outside of the Joe Dumars Field House.

More doctors are opening their practices to residents, Duggan said. 

“Two weeks ago, it was hard to find a doctor in this town if you didn’t already have one,” he said. He said that’s changed after he and the city’s Chief Public Health Officer, Denise Fair, contacted every clinic and doctor’s office in the city. The result: 30 doctors’ offices in Detroit are now taking new patients. 

“All 30 are there. Most of them don’t require you to have insurance. They’ll take you today,” Duggan said. “They’ll probably do it by a phone call or teleconference. But even if you don’t have money, they will take you right now. It’s phenomenal the way the medical community has stepped up.”

But in spite of some strides, some say the virus has irrevocably changed the city. 

“I think you will see us figure out how to return to work,” Duggan said. “Very likely with masks. Very likely with regular temperature checks. Very likely with regular checks as to whether folks are infectious.”

People will be more conscientious about cleaning and hand-washing. Fewer people will go to ball games or movie theaters.

“It’ll probably be a long time before we shake hands or hug,” Duggan said. “We’ll come out of this, but I don’t know if we’ll ever be all the way back." 

Ray at Brookings suggests specific strategies for cities like Detroit in a recent article:

  • Social scientists, epidemiologists, and other public health researchers should have readily-available data on race, place, gender, and age so they can develop better preparedness plans for upcoming waves of COVID-19. It helps to get resources to the places in most need which should help address the disparities.
  •  More testing and triage centers need to be placed in black neighborhoods, and areas with barriers to healthcare.  
  • Essential workers should get paid leave and hazard pay. They’re often low-wage workers who get the virus at a higher rate and expose others. Paid leave will help essential workers get the medical care they need and reduce the potential spread of the virus, Ray said. 

COVID-19 has created a new normal for the country, but what does that mean for Detroit, a city which just emerged from bankruptcy just six years ago? Detroit’s journey through the pandemic could be a test that may determine how tenuous or tough America and its economic and healthcare systems turn out to be.

“God ain’t through with us yet,” Anthony said. “I’m still an optimist, faithful and hopeful. We’ve got to come out of it better. If we have not learned anything and do not do better after we come out of this, shame on us.”

Tammy Joyner (lvjoyner59@gmail.com) is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. Free Press reporters M.L. Elrick and Joe Guillen contributed to this report. 

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated statistics about coronavirus-related deaths in Detroit. As of Wednesday, April 15, black Detroiters accounted for three out of four deaths in the city.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: COVID-19 and Detroit: How racial inequity turned deadly in a city amid a comeback

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