Hard hit by COVID-19, Black Americans are recovering slowly

Experts say it will take longer for Black communities to recover from the pandemic’s public health and economic impact.

For years, Latasha Taylor resisted her mother’s requests to join her in the family garden at sunrise. After her mother died from COVID-19 in 2020, Taylor, who lives in Dawson, Georgia, waters her mom’s plants to keep both the garden and her mother’s memory alive.
Photograph by Bethany Mollenkof

Linda Butler-Johnson, a 61-year-old widow, hasn’t had steady work for two years, not since she was laid off from her housekeeper job at a Washington, D.C. hotel in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her rent was paid by a city rental assistance program all last year. But in 2022 she’s on her own, with no steady income.

After a year of unemployment Moshi Bernard, 36, has a job as a librarian earning $20,000 less than she made in the finance department of a local hotel before the pandemic. She’s glad to have a job, but the big pay cut is hard to swallow. “Is it a step back? Yes,” she said. “Is it a lower pay? Yes. But is it steady and consistent? Yes.”

Two years into the pandemic and multiple variants that have resulted in one million deaths across the U.S., Black Americans are still suffering from COVID-19’s public health and economic consequences. The recovery of most people of color has been sporadic and uneven. From permanently closed businesses to limited access to health care, housing and food insecurity, increases in suicide and violent crime and educational setbacks, experts say it will take years before Black Americans are able to fully recover from the pandemic.

Black people are more than twice as likely to be hospitalized due to coronavirus. Factors include pre-existing health conditions such as Diabetes. They are more likely to have essential jobs that cannot be done remotely. Nearly 25 percent of employed Black and Hispanic people work in the service industry, the CDC says, which requires more interaction with the public and increased risk of COVID-19. Where African Americans live also makes a difference.  They’re more likely to live in multi-generational homes and densely populated cities.  Some have limited access to care. They either don’t have health insurance or don’t get paid when missing work to seek care.

“The larger Black community went into the pandemic, suffering disproportionately economically, medically, academically, and otherwise,” says U. S. Representative Kweisi Mfume of Maryland. “And so, the way we come out, when we do finally get out, is probably going to be best described by those same indicators that were in play when we went in.”

“It’s always been a pandemic for poor Black people,” says the Rev. Lionel Edmonds, senior pastor at Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church in Washington, “but now it’s expanding and intensified for the working poor.”

Three years have been slashed from the life expectancy of Black men. Forty percent of Black businesses closed during the first year of the pandemic. Some reopened, only to shut down again because of the Delta and Omicron variants.

“Every stat you can go pull right now will still show disparities and gaps between white Americans and Black and brown Americans are profound and significant,” says Harold Epps, former Philadelphia commerce secretary, now senior advisor at Bellevue Strategies. “Are we recovering from the depths of 2020? Yeah, marginally. But is it at the same pace as our white counterparts? The answer is no, we’re not.”

Violence and unemployment

Violent crimes and armed car jackings plague metropolitan areas across the nation, many using ghost guns, untraceable firearms that can be purchased in pieces on the internet and assembled at home. At least 12 major U.S. cities had record homicide rates last year.

“There is still pretty much a sort of a slow burn crisis in these communities,” says the Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of historic New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago.

“I don't know that the pandemic has triggered an increase in homicide or violent crime,” says Mfume, the congressman. “I can say with certainty, though, that it has not helped to alleviate those situations. Some of this socio-economic tragedy that we see playing out has a lot of tributaries that contribute to the river of pain and the river of disparity.”

While the latest jobless reports have been promising, with overall unemployment falling to 3.9 percent, jobless rates for Black workers were at 7.1 percent, says Gary Cunningham, president and CEO of Prosperity Now, a nonprofit group focused on building wealth and strengthening economic power. “Black and Latina women were hit hardest by job losses: over a million Black women had left the labor force entirely as of February 2020 connected to access to child and eldercare.”

Service workers, most of them Black and Latino, remain unemployed in huge numbers in many large cities, but especially in Washington, D.C., where government workers still have not fully returned to offices, and business travel, leisure travel and conventions are still a fraction of their pre-pandemic numbers.

Rickea Luster, 26, a culinary school grad and former banquet cook at the Marriot Marquis in Washington, remains unemployed two years after she lost her job during the height of COVID. She moved back home with her parents in Raleigh, North Carolina. Today she spends her time doing union work and is unsure if she wants to continue in the field she trained for.

John Boardman, who retired May 11 as executive secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 25,  which represents 7,000 hotel, restaurant and casino workers in the D.C. Metro area, including Butler-Johnson and Luster, says only 35 percent of his members have returned to work, many only part-time on weekends. At a recent union rally, 80 percent of the workers who attended were still unemployed, he said.

Those workers had jobs like hotel cooks, housekeepers and dishwashers, earning wages of $24 or $25 an hour, plus benefits, averaging $17,000 annually that included family health insurance and pensions.

“They bought homes, they bought cars. They had kids going to college,” says Boardman. “All of that was possible when you get income levels and benefit structures that provide a middle-class job. Significant numbers of our members right now are confronting situations where they've lost a house or about to lose it.”

“The rental subsidies that they enjoyed under certain government programs have disappeared or about to disappear,” Boardman says. “The costs and issues associated with returning to work are enormously more difficult than they were pre pandemic. Generally, they have children and children need childcare.”

Economic gaps

The economic gaps between the races were pretty significant before the pandemic, says Trevon Logan, economics professor at Ohio State University and co-author of the report, The Way Back: Assessing Economic Recovery Among Black Americans During COVID-19. “So, when we talk about recovery, if we just got back to where we were before the pandemic, that's not necessarily a great thing for African Americans overall. I don't think that we would claim some sort of victory if things were back to the levels of February 2020.”

Black and Hispanic people are still twice as likely to die from COVID-19, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) based on CDC data, but disparities in coronavirus cases and deaths have narrowed since early in the pandemic.

The National Academy of Sciences said life expectancy reductions for Black and Latino were three to four times that of White Americans. And the CDC says Black Americans suffered the largest decline in life expectancy since World War II leaving the racial gap in life expectancy at a 15-year low.

Since death rates were higher, the full long-term impact of COVID-19 will be much worse, says Ebony Jade Hilton, an expert on health inequities and associate professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine at University of Virginia.

“We (Black Americans) already had higher death rates for the 15 leading causes of death,” she says. Historically, Black Americans have suffered at significantly higher rates of chronic diseases, like cancer, high blood pressure and heart disease, living shorter and sicker lives that White Americans.

In addition, there has been a troublesome increase in suicides among young black adults, especially females – including former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst, 30, actress Regina King’s 26-year-old son, Ian Alexander Jr., and Walking Dead actor Moses Moseley, 31.  Suicides, which were already on the rise among Black youths before he pandemic, has increased in the last two years. And the increase for girls was twice that of boys according to Scientific American. In one survey of nearly 1,800 Black Americans who had died by suicide between 2003 and 2017, found that the largest increase occurred between teens aged 15 to 17.

 “When you don't have a quality of life and a future that gets you up in the morning, you're talking about a mental health crisis, which leads to depression, isolation suicidal tendencies and substance abuse,” says Edmonds. “This is a mental health breakdown and a physical health breakdown. “You can’t separate the two.”

Epps says the children of three friends have died by suicide since the pandemic—all college students or college graduates and were Black. And Shanti Das, founder of Silence the Shame, an organization which educates Black communities on mental health awareness, said one of her colleagues lost a 13-year-old child to suicide.

The range of issues faced by Black Americans, including the stress of racism, health and wage disparities piled onto the stress of the pandemic has been an enormous weight to bear, Das says.

“We’ve seen the mental toll,” she says. “So many people in our Black community don't have health insurance and so they don't have access to primary health care physicians, much less licensed mental health professionals.”

Mfume says the mental health of Black families has been strained “unlike any time before.”

That stress has also manifested itself in increases in spousal and child abuse, he said.

“Unfortunately, too many are taking out their anger on their children or on their spouse or their partner,” he says. “I think we can clearly say it was bad before, but the pandemic really made that worse.”

Hope despite the odds

Still, there is hope.

Butler-Johnson calls the Omni Shoreham Hotel weekly to see if they have even a couple of days of work. She’s optimistic that those calls will pay off, even for a few days of work a week. Recently the dispatcher said they might have something for her soon.

“So, even for one or two days that's a pretty good check,” she says. “I can probably get a few bills paid, such as life insurance. Nobody's going to pay that for me. That's been coming out of my pocket.”

 “It’s in our DNA to be resilient, to be creative, to be improvisers,” says Edmonds, the reverend. “And those are three things you have to be in this climate where you have to be resilient in the sense that you can't give up.”

“There's a lot of ups and downs,” says the unemployed Bernard. “All I can do is put my best foot forward and know that this is not the end as far as the position and the salary for me. So just keep pushing and keep applying myself. I've always been a go getter. So, I know this won't be the end for me.”

Bethany Mollenkof's photography and reporting was supported by a Nieman Visiting Fellowship.

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