Where you live can determine your health. Black people make up just thirty percent of Chicago’s population, but as widely reported this past week, the majority of deaths in Chicago from COVID-19 have been in the Black community, on the South and West sides. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that older adults and people with underlying conditions have a higher risk of developing a severe illness from the novel coronavirus, and Black communities are known to suffer disproportionately from conditions like asthma, heart disease, and diabetes.
But it’s systematic factors that contribute to these conditions, and to shorter life expectancy in these neighborhoods, and the pandemic is only intensifying those inequities. Stressors like industrial pollution, lack of access to healthy food, and over-policing; inadequate public transportation, health care, and proximity to resources; shuttered schools, voter suppression, street violence, low wages, and poverty in general all weaken the immune system.
But keeping accurate data on race can get complicated. Latinx and Hispanic people, for example, are known to be undercounted in government and survey counts; and when they are counted, they are often categorized as white. At this moment, much of Chicago’s Mexican population, which represents above twenty percent of the city’s residents, is reeling from the demolition of a century-old coal plant in Little Village that is exposing their homes to potentially toxic dust during a respiratory crisis, and public dollars are partly subsidizing it.
Social distancing is difficult for homeless Chicagoans and for the poor and working-class families who live cramped in a city with increasingly less affordable rents. Jails, prisons, and immigrant and juvenile detention centers in Illinois are epicenters of the pandemic on a national scale and have already claimed Black and brown lives. The Cook County Jail population is currently at its lowest after the gradual and temporary release of nonviolent detainees during the stay-at-home order, but more needs to be done. As we report in this issue, detainees there report a dire lack of policy and practice needed to keep them safe. Three deaths have been reported at the facility, said to be home to the largest outbreak in the country. And five deaths have been reported at Stateville Correctional Facility near Joliet, with advocates predicting many more if drastic decarceration measures are not taken.
In order to better understand the public health of our city and to properly advocate for just allocation of care and resources, we must see clearly the way illness and mortality appear along geographic and racial lines of disparity, neighborhood by neighborhood, and all solutions must be based on racial and economic justice.
The South Side Weekly live tracker of COVID-19 deaths by community area, created by Bea Malsky and updated hourly with information from the Cook County Medical Examiner, is intended to be a tool toward those ends.
Check it out every day at covid19neighborhoods.southsideweekly.com