Black Chicagoans are almost six times more likely to die from the new coronavirus than white residents, according to state and city health officials.
Health inequalities caused by poverty, lack of access to health care and systemic racism have long been recognized in Chicago. But combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, they create an even more combustible force that is ravaging the African American community.
One man who knows that all too well is the Rev. Marshall Hatch, who lost his eldest sister and his best friend to the virus.
We asked Hatch, the senior pastor at New Mount Pilgrim Church in West Garfield Park, to talk about the ongoing health crisis in Chicago’s black communities. The Q&A below has been edited.
You lost your oldest sister Rhoda to COVID-19. What was she like?
She was a fantastic person. My mom died in 1967 when I was 8 going on 9. She was the oldest and I was the next to youngest so as time went along she was more like a mom/big sister. She was the first in our family to go to college. She became a Chicago school teacher and that was what she did professionally most of her life. She was also a church organist. My father was a pastor and she played for him and then when I started being a pastor she played for me for the past 35 years. She started playing when she was 16 years old and she passed away when she was 73. We were very close.
Did she have any underlying health issues that made her more susceptible to the virus?
Yes she did. She had battled asthma for decades and she had become proficient in trying to manage that … the allergy season always made her a little vulnerable. So that’s what she was suffering from and she had diabetes as well.
Black Chicagoans are almost six times as likely to die from the virus as white residents of the city, but huge disparities in health outcomes existed long before the coronavirus. What do you see as the main reasons for this?
We’ve been having this conversation in Chicago about the disparity in life expectancy. My church is in West Garfield Park, and versus the Loop, which is five train stops away there, is a 16-year disparity in life expectancy. Obviously, we have a lot more challenges in our communities when it comes to health issues, given the circumstances people live in and their relationship with the health industry: access to health care; access to fresh food; access to fitness centers; and high rates of disinvestment that creates these pockets of desperation, a tale of two cities in a city like Chicago. So in many of these communities there are third-world conditions in a first-world city and all of the pathologies and challenges that come along with poverty. Obviously, we could have predicted that these leave us more vulnerable in a pandemic than other communities that are resourced.
The problems that have led to these health disparities have built up over decades. Is there anything that can be done now that you think would impact the rate of infection and death in the black community today?
What’s always interesting to me is that people want to solve issues of poverty without money. Having no money is why you are poor! Obviously what we are talking about is investment. I’m in West Garfield Park and it’s a community with probably the second lowest life expectancy in the city after Englewood. When Chicago lost 50 schools we lost four in that one community. It’s like a real kick in the gut of disinvestment. I don’t know how you solve issues of poverty without money and I don’t know what’s more important in solving issues of poverty than money. You need investment in people and institutions in the community and whatever public policies that enable us to not have concentrations of poverty — which is really almost like desperation feeding on itself.
How are the people that you have spoken with holding up? How are they coping with this changed world?
It’s very tense and there’s a lot of anxiety. One of the things I’ve recognized is the profundity of class distinctions. Depending on where you were before the virus, it really suggests where you might be now that the pandemic is in full rage. I’ve found that the people who felt they were secure are in panic mode … for people in the underclass, those who live on the street, who are housing insecure, food insecure, they are out and about. And they are not overly filled with anxiety because of coronavirus, because people are under various states of siege and anxiety as a norm. So this just becomes another layer. They are on the street hustling because they have to hustle every day in order to survive. Being in that survival mode has just been the norm anyway so the virus is just another layer of stress.
Do you think one thing that may come out of this crisis is an understanding and commitment to put money into communities that have suffered decades of disinvestment and neglect?
I do think that is entirely possible and that there could be a sort of moral call to action on addressing poverty. The conversations I’ve seen and been having online and in person, people are amazed how quickly we can move to a kind of socialism (in terms of the stimulus package passed by Congress) — that we could actually come up with $2 trillion so quickly. So it means we could address poverty and we could have addressed it all the time. I don’t know that I’m interested — and I know a lot of people who feel the same way — we don’t want to go back to normal. Normal wasn’t good. We want to create something in the future that is even better than what we had in the past. This is a disease that we have to own together. We have to realize that ultimately none of us are safe and none of us are healthy until all of us are. And that’s what this pandemic proves in a very stark way.
Note: This discussion originally aired on “Chicago Tonight” on April 13, 2020.