Letter from a Reader

Detroit: A “Perfect Storm” of Coronavirus and Years of Savage Inequality

| revcom.us


Editors' note: This letter from a reader on how the coronavirus pandemic crisis is unfolding in Detroit is an acute expression of what Bob Avakian has described: “In the context of this current crisis, the exploitative and oppressive relations built into this system are asserting themselves in a pronounced way, within this country and internationally, just as they have in previous crises.”

The state of Michigan is now third in the country behind New York and New Jersey in coronavirus cases, with more than 30,000 cases and more than 2,200 deaths as of April 18. The epicenter of the virus in Michigan is Detroit, with more than 7,400 cases and more than 580 deaths. Detroit’s population is smaller but its death rate from COVID-19 is higher than New York City’s. This has everything to do with the fact that Detroit is 83 percent Black, and the Black people there have faced decades of genocidal oppression and criminal neglect under this system of capitalism-imperialism. This now puts Detroit in a “perfect storm” of “pre-existing conditions” from these years of oppression, an anti-science fascist regime’s criminal mishandling of the spread of the virus, and the nature of the virus itself.

Thousands Lack Water in a Pandemic

Nothing concentrates the genocidal oppression of Black people in Detroit and how it intersects with the coronavirus pandemic more than the water shutoffs of recent years. Along with social distancing, the most important way to prevent virus infection is frequent handwashing. But since 2014, more than 140,000 homes in Detroit have had their water service disconnected for inability to pay water bills. This is a crime against humanity. The UN called it a violation of human rights, and there was a worldwide outcry when the news got out in June 2014. Canadians drove truckloads of water to Detroit, and there were mass protests.

But the water shutoffs continued. More than 23,000 homes had their water shut off in 2019, and 37 percent hadn’t had service restored as of mid-January 2020. When the virus hit, the city promised to restore water to residents, but as of March 31, thousands still had no water service in a pandemic. (Vox News, April 10, 2020)

On Democracy Now! (April 13), a video was shown, made by a woman watching water being shut off for her neighbor who has two children, one of them an infant. The woman said that despite a so-called moratorium, shutoffs are ongoing. In a pandemic! Reverend Roslyn Bouier of the Connection Food Pantry in Brightmoor, one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the virus and by water shutoffs, explained why shutoffs in a pandemic are so deadly. She said in ordinary times, even with water shutoffs, people will go to work and school and have access to water to drink and wash. But stuck at home with no water, there is no sanitation at all. She said:

“...When your water is shut off and we are given the directive to shelter in—which, I need to say here and stop for a moment and say, we should stop using that word ‘shelter,’ because we’re not using that word correctly. ‘Shelter’ is defined as having a place of safety and comfort and protection. And when you don’t have water on, that’s not shelter. It’s not shelter when children have to take their waste outside and throw it in the garbage. It’s not shelter when you don’t have water in your home and the sanitation is not available, because the city had declared that laundromats were nonessential providers, so laundromats were closed up, as well.”

Comorbidities: Pre-existing Conditions of Capitalism and White Supremacy

There are other conditions that make Black people in Detroit and elsewhere particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 in terms of their health. These are called “comorbidities,” diseases and conditions like asthma, hypertension, and diabetes that may make people more susceptible to contracting coronavirus and/or to dying from it by weakening their lungs, immune systems, and/or other vital organs or systems.

Take asthma for an example. Detroit has one of the highest rates of asthma in the U.S. The percentage of people with asthma in Detroit is twice that of the rest of Michigan. Poverty is one important factor in asthma, and 38 percent of people in Detroit live in poverty. One of the major triggers for respiratory problems like asthma is air pollution. The neighborhoods of poor and minority populations in this country are often close to and downwind of heavy industrial areas, power plants, incinerators, chemical plants—and this is true of Detroit. The nation’s biggest trash-burning facility was located in Detroit for decades, in a low-income, primarily Black neighborhood. After years of protests, it only closed in March of 2019.

Health Care Dangers for Both Patients and Workers

One of the reasons Black people are dying disproportionately from COVID-19 is their lack of access to health care. In Detroit, where health care services have declined for years, the health care system is totally inadequate to deal with the outbreak of the coronavirus. In the past decade, two major hospitals closed—Herman Keifer, Detroit’s main public hospital, and St. John Riverview, the last hospital on Detroit’s East Side. And some neighborhood clinics like the Northeast Health Center have also closed.

Black people are also disproportionately affected as workers in hospitals and especially in nursing homes. According to BuzzFeed.com (April 10, 2020), “Bureau of Labor statistics data shows black people work a disproportionate number of jobs as health care and personal care assistants, for example. Such jobs lead to exposure with potentially sick people, which is even more risky for people who aren’t wearing hospital-grade protective gear.” As of April 12, more than 2,700 health care workers in the Detroit area were sick with confirmed or suspected coronavirus infections, and four had died.

The lack of personal protective gear (PPE) for health care workers, a problem across the country, is so acute in Detroit that one nurse described driving around for hours picking up home-made masks for her and her co-workers. A severe staffing crisis has led to nurses and doctors watching patients die because they had too many patients to care for adequately. It got so bad at one hospital, Sinai-Grace, that emergency room nurses staged a sit-in in their break room, refusing to work until they were given support.

On April 6, the Detroit Free Press quoted Jamie Brown, a critical care nurse at Borgess Hospital and the president of the Michigan Nurses Association, who said that nurses have “a tipping point [where] the best thing any RN can do for their patients, their families, and their coworkers is to speak out ... rather than remain silent.” Hospital staff who speak out are threatened by administrators, and at least one nurse at Sinai-Grace has been fired for voicing protest.

Deadly Shortage of Testing

Compounding the pre-existing conditions of poverty and racism is a shortage of coronavirus testing. Since the first coronavirus case in Michigan was diagnosed on March 10, the virus has spread quickly, but the state was unable to adequately track the rapid spread because of a lack of testing kits. Without being able to identify who was sick, public health officials had no idea where the virus was spreading. It took eight days before the state was even able to identify 100 cases. By then, the coronavirus had already taken root and was quickly spreading throughout Detroit and other nearby communities.

People are dying and seeing family members die because they can’t get tested and treated in time. Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer publicly criticized Donald Trump and the federal government for failing to provide medical equipment, including testing kits, to Michigan and Detroit. With the number of deaths skyrocketing, Trump retaliated by telling vendors not to send medical equipment to Michigan!

Bodies Piling Up

According to CNN on April 14, photos shared among emergency room staff at Sinai-Grace show bodies being stored in vacant hospital rooms and piled on top of each other inside refrigerated holding units brought into the hospital’s parking lot. Sources told CNN that at least one room, which is typically used for studies on sleeping habits, was used to store bodies because the morgue was full!

One ER worker said: “All I know is we ran out of beds to keep our patients on so we couldn’t spare any for the bodies.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that Sinai-Grace has one of the highest COVID-19 mortality rates among hospitals in the U.S. According to DeadlineDetroit.com (4/9/20), patients have been “dying in the hallways” as they await care.

Morally Devastating

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a public health expert and a former director of the Detroit Health Department, said: “Just morally, we have to say that it’s just—it’s devastating. This is a disease that has shown itself to have a predilection for the most vulnerable, like all diseases do, but this one in particular, because it’s so vast.... What we have to understand is that the dynamics of any outbreak—the dynamics of really any infectious disease—it’s not enough just to focus on the pathogen. We also have to understand the dynamics of the host and the environment that leave people susceptible and vulnerable to a disease like this, and we’re watching that play out in real time in Detroit.” (U.S. News and World Report, April 8, 2020)

Detroit is the origin of so much music and culture, from Motown to techno, which have touched people around the world. Anthony Bourdain, the food critic and travel writer, once said that he “love[s] Detroit” but that he “feel[s] anger seeing the extent to which it has been allowed to crumble.” What’s happening now to Detroit in this pandemic is an outrage that should infuriate people all over the world.

The coronavirus has infected and killed a disproportionate number of Black people. Statewide, Black people represent 13.6% of the state's population and 39% of the coronavirus deaths. (Source: Detroit MetroTimes)

Compounding the pre-existing conditions of poverty and racism is a shortage of coronavirus testing. Since the first coronavirus case was diagnosed on February 10, the virus has spread quickly, but the state was unable to adequately track the rapid spread because of a lack of testing kits. Here, testing at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, March 25, in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Photo: AP

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