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As COVID-19 cases grow in the African American community, so do some dangerous falsehoods

The number of COVID-19-related deaths has disproportionately affected

The number of COVID-19-related deaths has disproportionately affected the African-American community across the United States. Credit: Getty Images/FatCamera

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You might not have heard of Waka Flocka Flame. Neither had I until the 33-year-old black rap artist recently declared that he and other people of color are immune to the coronavirus.

Say what?

"It's fake," Waka Flocka, formerly known as Juaquin James Malphurs, said during an interview in March on Los Angeles' REAL 92.3 radio. "Minorities can't catch it, we straight."

No, we not. Ironically and tragically, one of the biggest stories of the past week is how the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus kills not only all races, creeds and ethnicities but kills black people at a higher rate than other groups.

The first COVID-19 patient to die in Illinois, for example, was Patricia Frieson, 61, a black retired nurse from the South Side of Chicago, followed nine days later by her sister, Wanda Bailey, 63, of Crete.

So much for the notion that black people can't catch this deadly bug. Black Chicagoans have been dying at six times the rate of white residents, according to the Cook County medical examiner's office and the city's Department of Public Health. African Americans make up about 68% of the city's deaths although they make up only about 30% of the city's total population.

Black residents make up only 23% of Cook County but account for 58% of the COVID-19 deaths, according to a report from WBEZ, Chicago's public radio station.

Similar numbers have been reported nationwide as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided some limited data from 14 states on Wednesday as political pressure to do more reporting by race and ethnicity has increased.

Although the racial breakdown from the population in the report was 59% white, 14% Latino and 18% black, 45% of hospitalized coronavirus patients were white and 8% were Latino, according to the CDC, while 33% were black, further evidence of disproportionate impact by COVID-19.

At last Tuesday's White House briefing, infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said the health disparities that have long plagued black communities are now leading "to a bad outcome with the coronavirus."

They include diabetes, hypertension, obesity and asthma, all of which weaken resistance to coronavirus.

So do many of the jobs that working-class people of all races hold, particularly working black people, that put them into close contact with potential carriers of the virus, whether they are showing symptoms or not.

Detroit bus driver Jason Hargrove became a tragic symbol for drivers, cashiers, poll workers and other blue-collar workers whose jobs have put them on the front lines of the pandemic. He shot a selfie video expressing his disgust with a passenger who had just coughed in his face. A week and a half later, his union and city officials announced that the 50-year-old married father of six had died from complications of COVID-19.

Yet, we can add another hazard to Fauci's list: paranoid conspiracy theories and myths. As I have had to write on too many occasions in the past, we are an unfortunately paranoid people — and not without reason.

Having historically been victims of conspiracies ranging from slavery to modern-day housing discrimination, among others, African Americans are constantly reminded of the old sarcastic saying: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that somebody's not really out to get you.

But taken to extremes without foundation, we have a lot to fear from fear itself. Many of us grew up with stories of the notorious "Tuskegee experiments." For 40 years, beginning in 1932, the CDC studied black men with syphilis and without informed consent, withholding proper treatment even after penicillin was accepted as a remedy in 1945.

Some reparations were paid to the families, and nothing that atrocious is known to have occurred since then. Still, lingering suspicions cause too many African Americans to avoid doctors and, in too many cases, jump to unfounded conclusions — such as the equally dangerous but widespread fable that AIDS was created by humans in a secret laboratory.

The best remedy for dangerous ignorance is well-grounded information, offered by credible speakers in clearly consistent messages. Government researchers and others need to find more detailed and widespread information than we have now. The CDC's current information on coronavirus, for example, is woefully short on information about coronavirus rates among Native Americans and Native Alaskans, among other groups.

The better the information, the more effectively we can push back the plague.

Clarence Page wrote this piece for Tribune Content Agency.

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