The Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus held a town hall Thursday afternoon to discuss the impact COVID-19 has had on the black community in Wisconsin.
The virtual town hall meeting included several special guests, including Congresswoman Gwen Moore, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Milwaukee County Supervisor Felesia Martin, Dr. Kevin Izard from the Cream City Medical Society and more.
The meeting began with Rep. David Bowen, 33, who tested positive for the virus and recovered without needing hospitalization. Back when concerns for the virus were still low, Bowen was in contact with a local official and within 48 hours, began showing symptoms. After he tested positive, he went on a mandatory quarantine and was able to recover on his own.
“Within seven days of my symptoms continuing, on the North Side of Milwaukee, where Black and Hmong families live, you see that the numbers triple in that time,” he said. “It really highlights the amount of disparities that have long been in our healthcare system, have long been in our country and have gone unaddressed and allowed this virus to exploit our livelihoods and our ability to deal with this.”
In Wisconsin, there are just over 7,300 positive cases, with almost half of that being in Milwaukee county. A large portion of the cases in Milwaukee county are confined to the North side, where a majority of the population is Black. In fact, Black people account for 23 percent of the total positive cases, despite making up only 6 percent of Wisconsin’s population.
Despite those figures, Black people are not inherently prone to the virus, but rather, underlying social issues, structural racism and lack of affordable healthcare are at play. Those, in addition to health-related issues that are more common in the Black community, such as heart disease and diabetes, make it more likely for Black people to test positive for the virus, Dr. Izard said.
“We tend to have high-blood pressure, diabetes, those illnesses,” he said. “Also we see the virus pop up more in big cities and that’s because people are more concentrated there. We’re also more likely to be working in those ‘essential jobs’ in Walmart or a hospital, and because of that, we’re more likely to be exposed to it. Whatever the reason is, there’s nothing inherently about us that makes us more susceptible to getting the virus.”
Barnes affirmed that while Black people were not inherently more prone to contracting the virus, the historic systemic and social inequities that have persisted Black communities played a role in how destructive the virus has been. In addition, he pointed to the flaws the virus highlighted in the U.S. healthcare system, citing a move toward Universal healthcare as a necessity.
“This has exposed a huge flaw in America which is we need to move toward a more universal system because what we have right now is just not working,” he said. “The tens of thousands across Wisconsin [who lost their jobs], these are people who likely had a plan they were satisfied with and probably assumed that they could keep their health insurance but they couldn’t predict that they would lose their jobs. Therein lies the problem.”
Barnes also discussed the prospects of reopening the state, and the consequences that could come from it.
“The historic problems are being exacerbated by COVID 19,” he said. “In these moments people have to lead and it means being forward thinking. Reopening the state doesn’t mean the state is going to recover right away. That’s why we need a measured approach to getting us on the other side of the pandemic. It means coming to the table and talking about those who have been most impacted. That has been what’s the most disheartening thing for me is that the majority party legislators, the speakers, the majority leaders have talked about wanting to get things open quickly but never have they talked about the tremendous loss of life and how we stop that from happening. That has been absent from every statement.”
Ultimately, many of the speakers mentioned the importance of widespread testing in Black communities and information on access points for healthcare. Additionally, the guest speakers emphasized the necessity of continued social distancing and avoiding crowded places, even if Wisconsin opens back up.
“I think we need to figure out how to make sure [the Black community is] safe once we open things back up again,” Izard said.