COVID-19 Exposes More Inequities Between Black And White People In St. Clair County
Editor's Note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
For the month and a half when Donald Williams was sick with coronavirus, he suffered from vomiting and hallucinations along with his preexisting condition, kidney failure.
Williams, a Black man, had been hospitalized in Belleville when he found out his mom was dying of COVID-19.
The 87-year-old matriarch likely caught the disease at a family cookout in early March before anyone knew much about COVID-19, including in predominately Black communities such as their hometown of East St. Louis.
Williams, 49, caught the disease, as did his sister, brother-in-law and others in the family.
When he found out his mother was dying in a hospital across the Mississippi River in Missouri, he said he “started freaking out.”
“I was like, ‘OK, I gotta get better so I can see my mom.’ Then she passed, and I didn’t even make it to my mom’s funeral. Nobody was even able to go see her. She died alone.”
Like families across the country, the Williamses have had to confront the lethal demographics of the pandemic. Black people are three times as likely nationwide to be infected, according to recent analysis of Centers for Disease Control data from The New York Times.
Faced with a novel disease that suffocates its victims, East St. Louis public health institutions have stretched their gutted budgets to protect Black communities where asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis are endemic.
“Nearly everybody here has asthma or some type of respiratory ailment,”said Elizabeth Patton-Whiteside, CEO of the East Side Health District, which oversees public health in St. Clair County’s predominately Black communities. “So, they’re like, ‘Well, I can’t breathe good anyway, so that’s nothing new.”
And then on May 25, a Black man in Minneapolis died after telling the police officer kneeling on his neck more than 20 times that he couldn’t breathe.
The convergence of the pandemic and a national identity crisis about race following the death of George Floyd finally awakened white communities in St. Clair County to the disadvantages woven into Black lives over centuries.
As the pandemic ravaged the Black community, it also lifted the veil on the environmental hazards of heavy industry, the lack of access to health care and the tendency of white people to turn a blind eye to racial inequity.
“It really did expose the things that people go through day in and day out,” said Chris Belt, a Democratic state senator from Centreville. “You’ve always known it was there, but it’s in your face now. The air we breathe is polluted. The water we drink is not up to par. Opportunity, access to better wages, better jobs, all those things that I’ve been hearing nonstop are playing out in the nation.”
Data from St. Clair County zip codes illustrates the stark divide. The Belleville News-Democrat’s analysis of Illinois Department of Public Health data from March 1 through June 1 found:
Almost half of confirmed coronavirus cases in St. Clair County were Black patients, though Black people make up just 30% of the population. A quarter of cases were white people, who account for 62% of the population.
Black-majority communities have twice as many cases per capita as mostly white communities when comparing zip codes with similar testing rates.
Of the 10 St. Clair County zip codes with the highest per capita case rate, seven have a majority Black population.
Racial data by zip code in St. Clair County show it is still largely segregated. Nearly 70% of the county’s African American residents live in majority Black communities.
“What doesn’t affect us?” said Tamara Cummings, a 48-year-old receptionist who welcomes visitors at Touchette Regional Hospital. “We always take hits. We take the hits and we’re built to keep going and keep going until we can’t take no more. It’s already mentally in our heads to know that we got to take a hit.”
‘The result is no surprise’
Living with poisoned air and poor health, East St. Louisans might not think much of yet another ailment that affects their breathing. By the time they show up for treatment, most likely at an emergency room, “they’re in real respiratory distress,” Patton-Whiteside said.
At least some of the health problems come from industries that burn toxic chemicals, said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who grew up in East St. Louis. Durbin’s colleague, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, asked the Centers for Disease Control to investigate potential health concerns connected to the incineration of heavy metals in Sauget.
“It almost goes without saying the poorest communities, the poorest neighborhoods, the poorest towns in America are the places where people dump their trash and burn their chemicals and get away with it,” Durbin said. “You just have to scream bloody murder to get the companies to stop doing that.”
Other factors weakening healthin Black communities are well documented. They include living in food deserts that leave residents vulnerable to obesity and diabetes because they don’t have access to nutritional foods.
“These are things that primarily affect African Americans,” said Belt, the state senator. “Then this thing comes along and when Black folks get it, it’s almost a death sentence because it goes right to your underlying issues.
The closest hospital for East St. Louis residents is Touchette in nearby Centreville, five miles away. Often, residents go to hospitals across the Mississippi River or 13 miles away to Belleville, especially for regular doctor visits.
“It really does create a challenge, if not a hardship, to not have access to regular maintenance care as well as critical care,” Durbin said. “The result is no surprise. Combine an overwhelming issue of poverty with a lack of access to medical care, and people suffer from chronic conditions.”
Legacies of mistrust
Two other realities worsen the impact of coronavirus in East St. Louis: mistrust of both law enforcement and health care.
Most East St. Louisans have a story about their encounters with police brutality and discrimination, so it’s no wonder they’re wary when they see police and National Guard members lined up to provide security atCOVID-19 testing sites. An expired plate or an old warrant are enough to keep them from getting the help they need.
“They don’t trust that aspect of it and they won’t go,” Patton-Whiteside said.
The legacy of medical research plagued by experimentation on Black people still resonates deeply in communities like East St. Louis.
From 1929-1974, Black women were targeted by the Eugenics Board of North Carolina’s sterilization program. Memories of the early 20th century Tuskegee Study — where researchers lied to Black men about the experiment studying syphilis and never treated the men — also feed into the mistrust of health care.
“For Black men, some of us are very skeptical about going to the doctor for really anything,” said Darron Suggs, Donald Williams’ brother-in-law, who was reluctant to see a doctor when he started experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
“I got a lot to live for, and I got a lot to offer. I got two grandsons I want to see grow up, so yeah, I was a bit reluctant to go. ... I watch the news every day, and I’ve been seeing how our loved ones go in and they don’t come out.”
His mother-in-law was one of them.
“A number of people are living that same regret that they couldn’t see their loved ones take their last breath,” Suggs said.
Despite the mistrust, Black communities in the East St. Louis area have a higher rate of testing than white communities, according to state data. In St. Clair County zip codes that are majority Black, 30% more of the population on average was tested for coronavirus than in majority white zip codes.
But the increased testing does not account for the higher rate of confirmed cases compared to white communities. In Black and white zip codes with testing rates within 1.5 percentage points of each other, the predominately Black zip codes saw double the infections.
Though the East St. Louis area was one of the last Metro East communities to get a public testing site, it was part of a statewide effort to expand testing in minority communities. That may have helped increase much-needed testing in a community where the virus is more prevalent, Patton-Whiteside says, but it’s not enough to fully understand the extent of COVID-19’s presence there.
The Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis serves as a community-based COVID-19 testing site. Since opening on May 6, it’s the first community-based testing facility in Illinois to offer walk-up and drive-thru testing services. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the center’s founding director, said she’s grateful to serve the vulnerable Black-majority population of East St. Louis.
“It means a lot when people can just walk up,” said Joyner-Kersee, an East St. Louis native. “It took a lot of concern off some of the families and people who just want to know, so to be able to serve in that capacity while you deal with a lot of trauma and the pressures and all the different things that we’re faced with is great.”
The activist and former track star said people were initially reluctant to get tested, so she took the COVID-19 test herself to encourage more people in her community to get tested. However, Joyner-Kersee understands reasons why some Black people might not want to.
“I think that’s the sad thing about when you don’t trust, is that you have your guard up, so [we’re doing] whatever we can do to get as many people tested as possible, especially in the Black community,” Joyner-Kersee said.
“I’m out here steadily harping on test, test, test,” Patton-Whiteside said. “We are getting more testing done than we did before, just not enough. We still need massive testing done.”
‘Living from check to check'
Cost and access are also barriers that keep many residents from seeking testing or treatment before their conditions become a crisis.
Health insurance is too expensive for some people, even if they’re employed. This can add to the unwillingness to get tested and to seek treatment prior to a medical crisis, Patton-Whiteside said.
Others don’t want to get tested because if it comes back positive, it could mean having to take off work and missing out on paychecks, an impossible situation for some, said Cummings, the Touchette receptionist.
“They don’t want to know if they have it or not because it could keep them from going to work,” Cummings said. “You already living from check to check.”
Wyvetta Granger, co-pastor at New Life Community Church in East St. Louis, suspected she had coronavirus in December, but hesitated to seek medical care because of the potential bill.
“I was sick to death,” she said. “But the truth is I played with going back and forth to the emergency room because I didn’t feel hopeful that they were going to do anything. I figured they would write it off as the flu and give me something so I didn’t want the bill. I just decided to care for myself. I know a lot of people have been there who can’t afford all of those medical bills when all they’re going to do is go home and take a Tylenol, so [access to] health care is definitely an issue.”
Granger, a former disease intervention specialist for East Side Health District, is also the director of Community Lifeline, a faith-based nonprofit dedicated to meeting the needs of families in the community. During the pandemic, the outreach program has supplied lower-income families with food, clothing and transportation options.
“Through all of this, we just need to keep awareness and education out front for the African-American community and how it affects the multi-generations of our family,” Granger said. “Most of us live like that now. Most of us are in the house with grandmas and grandpas, so to just keep those messages out front is important.”
Habitually denied equal services since the county’s earliest days, Black residents formed their own social nuclei to support one another — contributing to a morbid paradox that worsened the community spread of COVID-19.
But the same community ties help them survive.
Williams said his faith in God comforts him. Faith is a crucial aspect in East St. Louis’ “6 Feet in the Street” rally, which started as a response to the COVID-19’s effect on Black communities. The event, held monthly at the intersection of 25th and State Street, combines prayer and organizing to help combat social injustices Black people face, said East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern.
“It’s not just about coming together praying,” Eastern said. “The praying is the bigger part of it, but we also want action. ... Once this COVID-19 is over, some of these smaller cities like East St. Louis are going to be devastated, so what is going to be in place to help us rebound? That’s how this [rally] really came about.”
Passion for change?
Some southern Illinois towns saw anti-racist protests for the first time in their history in step with nationwide unrest. Leaders in Black communities believe if white people begin to value Black issues, they might support policy changes that could improve services and health care in Black communities.
In St. Clair County, towns such as Freeburg, where almost 99% of the population is white, experienced Black Lives Matter demonstrations. White people turned out by the dozens across the Metro East to protest systemic racism in a historic turn of events.
Patton-Whiteside said when she sees people, Black and white, passionate about change, she's encouraged.
“If people are banding together and saying, ‘This is wrong,’ then we have hope. We have hope.”
DeAsia Paige and Kelsey Landis are reporters at the Belleville News-Democrat, a reporting partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
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