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“The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color throughout our state,” Whitmer, a Democrat, said in her executive order. “For example, while African Americans represent 13.6 percent of our state’s population, they represent a staggering 40 percent of the deaths from COVID-19.”
Whitmer’s task force will investigate and study strategies to address the disparity as well as the historical and systematic inequalities pertaining to race that have amplified the death rate in the state’s black community.
Michigan’s governor is not the first public official to recognize the disproportionate toll the virus is having on communities of color.
A growing chorus of medical professionals, activists and political figures is pressuring the federal government to not just release comprehensive racial demographic data of the country’s coronavirus victims, but also to outline clear strategies to blunt the devastation on African Americans and other communities of color.
On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its first breakdown of COVID-19 case data by race, showing that 30 percent of patients whose race was known were black. The federal data was missing racial information for 75 percent of all cases, however, and did not include any demographic breakdown of deaths.
The latest Associated Press analysis of available state and local data shows that nearly one-third of those who have died are African American, with black people representing about 14 percent of the population in the areas covered in the analysis.
Health conditions that exist at higher rates in the black community -- obesity, diabetes and asthma -- make African Americans more susceptible to the virus. They also are more likely to be uninsured, and often report that medical professionals take their ailments less seriously when they seek treatment.
“It’s America’s unfinished business -- we’re free, but not equal,” said civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson. “There’s a reality check that has been brought by the coronavirus, that exposes the weakness and the opportunity.”
Daniel Dawes, director of Morehouse College’s School of Medicine’s Satcher Health Leadership Institute, said America’s history of segregation and policies led to the racial health disparities that exist today.
“If we do not take an appreciation for the historical context and the political determinants, then we’re only merely going to nibble around the edges of the problem of inequities,” he said.
The release of demographic data for the country’s coronavirus victims remains a priority for many civil rights and public health advocates, who say the numbers are needed to address disparities in the national response to the pandemic.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.