COVID-19 Took Chicago Black Lives First and Exposed Structural Racism

We look at the coronavirus pandemic’s disproportionate toll on African Americans through the story of Chicago’s first 100 recorded deaths. A report by ProPublica found that 70 of the first 100 people to die were African American. Black people account for 30% of Chicago’s population and 72% of COVID-19 deaths. We speak with ProPublica reporter Adriana Gallardo, who contributed to the report “COVID-19 Took Black Lives First. It Didn’t Have To.” She says the story paints a picture of “sophisticated structural racism” in Chicago.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. As top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci prepares to remotely testify today before a Senate panel opening up the country prematurely will lead to, quote, “needless suffering and death,” we look at how the pandemic has already taken a disproportionate toll on African Americans in cities like Chicago, where Black people account for 30% of the city’s population, 72% of COVID-19 deaths. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot spoke to CBS News’ Face the Nation about the disparity.

MAYOR LORI LIGHTFOOT: This is an issue that’s not unique to Chicago, unfortunately. We’re seeing similar kinds of numbers reported across the country in large urban centers. And the answer that we believe is right is because of the underlying conditions that people of color, and particularly Black folk, suffer from, whether it’s diabetes, heart disease, upper respiratory illnesses. The kind of things that we’ve been talking about for a long time that plague Black Chicago, that lead to life expectancy gaps, this virus attacks those underlying conditions with a vengeance.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Chicago mayor. A new report by investigative news outlet ProPublica examined the first 100 recorded deaths in Chicago and found 70 of them were African American. Reporters obtained a Cook County Medical Examiner’s database that listed the names, health and location information of COVID-19-related deaths, and reached out to the families and friends of each person who died, ultimately focusing on 22 of the victims.

For more, we’re joined by the newly Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica engagement reporter Adriana Gallardo, part of a ProPublica and Anchorage Daily News team that just won the 2020 Pulitzer for the investigative report “Lawless,” about sexual violence in Alaska. We hope to talk to her about that, as well as her piece on “Los New Yorkers: Essential and Underprotected in the Pandemic’s Epicenter.”

But first, the story that you did, Adriana, on Chicago. Congratulations on your Pulitzer. Talk about the significance of what you found in your hometown, in Chicago.

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Sure. Thank you for having me. Good morning. And like anything at ProPublica, it was a team effort, both the story and all of the other accolades.

The story in Chicago, that happens when you peel back all of the jargon and the numbers and the overrepresentation, is one of losing the fabric of the city. In the 22 families that we were able to speak with, you really learn how much, A, they loved Chicago, how much they did for the city. We’re talking about veterans, teachers, nurses, everyday folks that are really the workers at the heart of what makes the city so great. And so, in examining these first 70 deaths, we were able to understand how sophisticated structural racism exists in a place like Chicago and how it’s quick to sort of throw off the arrows in trying to understand how entrenched things are. And it is easy to just say, “Well, these folks just were sicker and worse off than other folks, and that’s an inevitable consequence.” And what we learned is that it looks very different when this is your lived experience.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Adriana, specifically, what did you learn in terms of why there was such a disproportionate impact in the African American community compared to the general White community?

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Sure. There were three things that we learned from speaking to these families and looking at the data in Chicago. One was that the one-size-fits-all approach to COVID care doesn’t necessarily work for everyone, especially those that are already facing other complications. And so many folks waited until their symptoms were very severe to seek care. That was one thing that really gleamed.

The second thing was, you know, the thing that most Chicagoans know, which is the uneven distribution of hospitals throughout the city. Many of the folks who were among the first to die lived in neighborhoods that are served by less-equipped hospitals, what — they’re called safety net hospitals. And particularly the South and West Side, they serve low-income populations with fewer resources. And many of the folks that became ill would either travel 30 minutes, 40 minutes to the nearest hospital that they trusted, or they got so sick that by the time that the paramedics arrived, they had to go to the nearest location, which is often a hospital that they didn’t trust or that wasn’t equipped to serve them.

And then, thirdly, the other heartbreaking thing is that the social connections that made their lives so strong, that make them integral to the beat of the city, really were then weaponized and were often a trace of how they became sick. So, those three things were really — stand out for us in this story.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And were there any particular impacts, for instance, of the kind of work that people did before the pandemic struck or during the pandemic? Because, obviously, in terms of some of the Latino community, which, as I understand it, now already makes up the largest portion of any demographic in Illinois that has been struck by COVID-19, but many of them work in frontline situations. They’re janitors. They work in restaurants or in hospitals as maintenance people. Were there any particular, among the African American community, employment situations that may have contributed to their contracting the virus and dying?

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Yeah, of course. These are the city’s frontline workers, right? The transit workers, the service industry workers. Many of those connections, of course, had lots to do with who died first in the pandemic.

AMY GOODMAN: Your specialty, Adriana, your love, your passion for journalism, is around engagement and bringing out the voices of the people that you’re covering. Can you tell us some of the stories, like Philman Williams, who was 70 years old and loved to travel and was in Mardi Gras in New Orleans?

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Yes, yeah. No, I mean, I think — I’m very interested in understanding the — in between the disparity that they long lived with and their sudden deaths. There’s so much that happens in between and so many people that were a part of their lives. And that’s something that doesn’t always happen in obits and doesn’t always happen in how we talk about these —

AMY GOODMAN: Adriana, you just froze for a second.

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Like —

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, there, go ahead. Go ahead.

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Oh, sorry. Yeah, no, I mean, like any story that I think, especially in the ones that our newsroom covers, it’s important to really understand what’s at stake for those that are most affected by whatever issue we’re talking about. And then, in learning from them as the experts of their own experience, we’re able to really tell fuller stories that are actually representative of what’s at stake and who’s let who down in the equation. And in this case, it was a very fast-moving target. You know, the pandemic was probably the only new factor in things that people already knew were happening in their lives and weren’t necessarily had any control over, until —

AMY GOODMAN: So, John Hill and Philman Williams?

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Yes. John Hill was a man that grew up in Cabrini-Green, met his wife down the street at the Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s — and Chicagoans will know exactly where we’re talking about — met his wife and built a family, started a small catering business, catered to many of the local politicians. And among his proudest accomplishments was cooking for the Obamas in 2008. You know, folks that can’t get more Chicago than that.

And, you know, Philman’s family, Philman Williams’ family, was proud of him. He was a doorman at Michigan Avenue and was very well loved by his colleagues, by the people in his building, had a long career in the service industry and in his neighborhood, in his community.

And so, for many of these families, this was a complete betrayal from the universe they weren’t expecting. John Hill who was 53 years old and was out campaigning for a friend on Election Day last March in Chicago. And so, for a lot of these families, when you call them and talk to them about COVID, you know, they don’t speak of it in the terms that we might write about it. They speak of it as a sudden and incredible loss to their families and to who they were.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, Adriana, and when we come back, we want to talk about “Los New Yorkers,” talk about people in the epicenter of the epicenter of the pandemic, who gets counted in their deaths, who doesn’t, what kind of support does the state give, especially for the undocumented. Adriana Gallardo, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with ProPublica. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Quarantine Trio Improvisation” by Sonny Singh, Jonathan Goldberger and Rohin Khemani, friends playing together alone in their homes, from Los Angeles to New York City.