The narrative that health officials have provided to the public is based on the notion that the coronavirus does not discriminate against its victims, infecting their respiratory systems at large with a reckless abandon that only seems to be getting more random. But in Milwaukee County, home to the eponymous city that is also the most segregated in the United States, the first eight people to die of complications from COVID-19 have been African American, further shattering the misguided misconception that Black people cannot contract the coronavirus.
In fact, as of Friday afternoon, the first eight people just so happened to be the only people in the entire Milwaukee County to have died from the coronavirus. While that death toll was comparatively low to those in and closer to major affected areas like New York City and The Bay Area, it was still at least three more than the coronavirus death toll in all of Wisconsin.
The Associated Press reported that the state claims 13 people have died, “but local health departments have confirmed 15.” It was not immediately clear the race of the other people who have died after contracting COVID-19.
The reason for the racial disparity in coronavirus deaths in Wisconsin and especially Milwaukee also was not clear. But there were suspicions that not just the aforementioned segregation but also a lack of ready access to resources necessary during a global pandemic the likes of which no one alive has ever experienced.
“I wish I could say I was surprised or shocked by that,” Joshua Garoon, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies public health, told the AP. “But it’s precisely, given the situation in Wisconsin, what I would expect to see. … All else is not equal, especially in a city like Milwaukee.”
According to the most recent Census statistics, 27 percent of Milwaukee County’s 946,000-person population was made up of Black people. In Wisconsin, home to 5.8 million people, Black people account for just 7 percent of the state’s residents.
A group of Black leaders in Milwaukee has launched a campaign centered on African American communities that aims to increase awareness of the coronavirus, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It appeared that most of the African Americans who tested positive for the coronavirus lived in the city’s North End — which makes sense considering the segregated the city is.
“The deadly coronavirus (COVID-19) is spreading fast among Milwaukee’s African American population,” Milwaukee Alderman Russell W. Stamper II said in a statement Thursday. “But those deaths — and a strict citywide Stay-at-Home order — don’t seem to be getting the attention of enough people in the community.”
Testing has contributed to the racial disparity, according to the Journal Sentinel. Out of all of the testing conducted for the month except for Friday, “about 22% were for people identifying as white, about 27% were people identifying as black and about 50% are people who didn’t indicate a race or ethnicity.”
The cluster of not just cases but deaths of Black people in Milwaukee might for some people come across as an anomaly compared to the rest of the country. But seems to be a surge in positive testing and deaths following the contraction of the coronavirus among Black people in the U.S. as well as around the world.
The most recent high profile case was Houston rapper Scarface, who announced on Thursday he had tested positive. Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley announced on Thursday she had been tested after experiencing flu-like symptoms. New Orleans radio personality Oliver Stokes Jr., who went by the name of DJ Black N Mild, died March 19, one day after he tested positive for the coronavirus. All three of these were in their 40s, decades younger than the demographic initially thought to be most vulnerable to the coronavirus.
But there are plenty of lesser heralded examples of Black folks dying of complications caused by the coronavirus, too, including a 36-year-old high school principal in Brooklyn, New York, who died this week.
The coronavirus has been the latest health challenge facing Black people in Milwaukee, the city’s Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik told the Journal Sentinel while alluding to the city’s segregation problem.
“Looking at the maps of Milwaukee, and looking where people live, looking at the history of redlining and segregation and how that crosses over into today,; when we’re talking about various health outcomes like infant mortality, childhood lead poisoning, you see very similar distributions,” Kowalik said.