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Kansas City Black Leaders Say COVID-19 Disparities Reflect Deep Inequities

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Aviva Okeson-Haberman
Teacher Edward Bell (left) and Pat Clarke (right), director of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association, want to see more investment in the third and fifth Kansas City districts, which have seen high numbers of COVID-19 cases.

Disparities reveal inequality in work requirements, transportation, as well as the cost and availability of quality health care.

Black Kansas City residents have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, according to data released by the city health department Monday.

About 44% of confirmed COVID-19 cases came from black patients, even though black people make up about 30% of the city’s population. Health experts and community leaders say the disparities are the result of longstanding inequalities.

“We have to come to grips with how again oppression and racism has divided communities and has again disproportionately exposed communities to this illness,” says third district Councilwoman Melissa Robinson, who's also president of the Black Health Care Coalition.

Health disparities

This isn’t Rev. Eric Williams first epidemic.

The pastor at Calvary Temple Baptist Church has been at the forefront of AIDS outreach since 1991. So he knows a lot about health care access and his congregation hasn’t been immune to the spread of COVID-19. Several members have the virus, while others are on the frontlines as first responders and health care workers.

“It means taxing a system that was already broken and compounding issues for people who already, for lack of a better way to say it, abandoned or ignored, untreated,” Williams says. “So when you add something new like COVID to things that are broken already it just further complicates things.”

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Paul Andrews
Rev. Eric Williams is a pastor at the Calvary Temple Baptist Church.

Black Americans have higher rates of chronic diseases like diabetes and asthma compared to white Americans, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those underlying conditions make getting COVID-19 more deadly. Black Americans are less likely to have health insurance, according to the Kaiser Health Foundation.

“There are long and baked-in systemic and structural inequities in our society, that are based off of, by and large, structural racism and income inequality,” says Qiana Thomason, president and CEO of the Health Forward Foundation. “And the outgrowth of those two factors produce a whole host of inequities around life, health, housing, transportation, the conditions that one lives in.”

Kansas City’s preliminary data follows what other states and cities have reported — that the coronavirus is infecting black people at disproportionately high rates, according to The New York Times. In Kansas, black people make up about 16% of cases. Roughly 6% of the state population is black. However, the state doesn’t have race information for about a quarter of all cases.

“Existing inequalities are the underlying problem and then COVID-19 just magnifies in a way that is, you know, potentially deadly,” Urban Neighborhood Initiative president and CEO Dianne Cleaver says.

“They're feeling like they're dispensable”

Arlisa Osborn likes to say she has the second-best job in the world, right behind being a mom.

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Arlisa Osborn says she was lucky to be able to afford the $115 it cost her to get tested for COVID-19.

“This is mom extended,” Osborn says. “So my job entails me making sure that my clients are a part of society.”

Osborn is a home health care worker in Kansas City and helps people who have a disability. She’s one of the essential workers who can’t work from home. Osborn is black. Nationally, about one in five black workers are in jobs that allow for telework, according to 2017-2018 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“So everywhere that I go, I have to be super, super careful,” Osborn says.

In March, she started to get a dry cough and mucus buildup.

“I just woke up one of the mornings and just did not feel quite right,” Osborn says. “I just could not stop coughing.”

She was able to get a COVID-19 test but it cost her $115. The test came back negative and she said she’s feeling better now but she worries about people who can’t afford the test. She estimates about half of her friends work in the health care field, and she already knows two people who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

“They're feeling like they're dispensable,” Osborn says. “As a frontline worker, we are sacrificial.”

What’s next?

While the pandemic isn’t over yet, some people are already thinking about what happens next. Jackson County Executive Frank White has raised concerns about releasing data showing cases by ZIP code and race.

“If so much is highlighted, then a lot of this information could be used to target certain communities, certain districts when it comes to insurance for automobiles, when it comes to homeowners insurance,” White says.

That data is critical for public health, according to Jannette Berkley-Patton, a professor at the UMKC School of Medicine's Department of Biomedical and Health Informatics. However, Berkley-Patton said data should be shared with local community leaders before being widely released.

“Far too often vulnerable populations data is just put out there and they don't even have a chance to digest it, interpret it, understand it, and it's really a disservice for those communities,” Berkley-Patton says. “However, we do need the data though, because if we don't have that data, then we don’t know how to organize and mobilize to really be able to thwart issues like COVID-19.”

Councilwoman Melissa Robinson says she wants the data to open a conversation about the effects of racism during a pandemic.

“If we're not open and honest about that data, we’ll continue to be in this ‘Kansas City nice space’ where individuals are suffering,” Robinson says. “Individuals are seeing, again, this disparate rate of the impacts that oppression, racism and poverty present and so it is better to have the information to … have the appropriate solutions to address the root causes of the disparity.”

Aviva Okeson-Haberman is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter: @avivaokeson.