Black people are resilient. But by its very definition, resilience means the existence of a problem from which one must recover quickly. The word, the feelings, and the actions of resilience are often celebrated by institutions, and by the tough people who overcome the obstacles around them.
But to grow and change for the better, we must learn from mistakes of the past that forced Black people to be resilient in the first place. It is well past time to take a second look at the dangerous and biased policies that continue to harm Black bodies.
Recently the American Public Health Association said, “Racism is a driving force of the social determinants of health (like housing, education and employment) and is a barrier to health equity.” There is no greater example of this fact — and the perpetual demand for Black resilience — than the response to COVID-19 in 2020, which closely mirrors the response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ’90s.
The world first learned of HIV/AIDS as the “Gay Plague” in the 1980s. It was presented as a white gay disease. Similar to the 1793 outbreak of yellow fever here in Philadelphia, there were stories and rumors that Blacks were immune to COVID-19. HIV was deemed a hoax by some, and systemic distrust of health institutions among Black communities further fuel these notions.
But by 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 46% of people living with HIV at that time in the United States were Black. Later, a 2012 study by the Black AIDS Institute revealed that one in four Black gay men were infected with HIV. According to the most recent numbers from the CDC, HIV is — more than 30 years after the world learned of its existence — a disease affecting mostly Black people, who account for 42% of the 37,832 new HIV diagnoses in the United States.
Sadly, today, as the world and the nation prepare for a second wave of the frightening COVID-19 pandemic, we are facing a similar situation. We know Black people are hospitalized with COVID-19 at a rate nearly four times higher than whites. Even more alarming, Black people die of COVID-19 at a rate three times higher than whites. This is yet another invisible disease that is taking the lives of our community, and we aren’t getting the support we need to survive. It is deja vu to experience this twice in one lifetime.
During the early days of the HIV epidemic, Black leaders such as Dr. Rashidah Abdul Khabeer, a cofounder of Bebashi, one of the country’s first organizations to respond to AIDS in the Black community, said that it was “intolerable and unacceptable that Black gay men would be subjugated in this epidemic as though they did not exist.”
Groups like ACT UP Philadelphia and the Minority AIDS Coalition and leaders like the late Rev. Henry Wells, Arnold Jackson, Jaci Adams, and Linda Smith fought long and hard to force those in power to protect the lives of Black people living with HIV. Their work included an immediate massive public education campaign to spread awareness of AIDS and how to prevent it, as well as the immediate establishment of a coordinated, comprehensive, and compassionate national policy on AIDS. Research conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that “Six in ten people (61%) in a national survey reported that the media — including television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet — is their primary source of information about HIV/AIDS.”
During a recent City Council hearing, Councilmember María Quiñones-Sánchez admonished the Kenney administration for failing to live up to its own promises to use a “racial equity lens” in budgeting and contracting decisions related to COVID-19 funding for organizations led by people of color. And Councilmember Cherelle Parker called out the administration for not awarding the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium a contract, although that group had been providing needed testing in Black communities already. (The group was later given funding, after a reversal.)
The city, and the nation, also failed in collecting adequate data early on when it comes to racial demographics and the disease. The numbers that we see now may grossly underrepresent the full degree of the impact and devastation COVID-19 has had on the Black community. It has long been understood Black-led nonprofit organizations fall behind in funding and are “less trusted,” while at the same time science shows that organizations led by those most affected by a particular disease or circumstance are more likely to reach the affected community.
The harm caused by these viruses in Philadelphia’s Black communities must end.