I shut myself in my Brooklyn apartment, binge-reading about virology and venturing out only for groceries and a brisk walk now and then. And what I read keeps making me worry in a particular way: When I learn that people with heart and kidney disease, sickle cell disease, diabetes, and other preexisting medical conditions are at a higher risk of severe illness from Covid-19, I know those conditions are especially prevalent in the Black community. When I start to read about the “essential workers” who will have to stay physically on the job while everyone else locks down—nurses, social workers, home health aides, grocery store and fast food workers—I know those professions are heavily made up of Black and brown women, like my own mother. Plus, well, I’m all too familiar with the wisdom in the ancient Black proverb “When white folks catch a cold, Black folks get pneumonia”—and the chronic social and economic inequities that affect Black health, and the distrust that many of us harbor for a health care system after generations of demonstrated racism. Every now and then, I send the articles I’m reading about the virus to friends and family—almost all of whom have yet to understand the severity and urgency of the pandemic. Even experts know so little about the virus at this point.
My overwhelming fear—which is almost a certainty—is that the Black community is going to be uniquely devastated by this pandemic. So, on April 5, I finally send out the first installment of my newsletter. Only now it’s something completely different. I call it Coronavirus News for Black Folks.
They came true, of course, those worries that the pandemic will hit Black people especially hard. The first evidence comes mainly from articles by Black journalists and scholars, who connect the dots with racially sorted data from several states because federal agencies have yet to release any such nationwide numbers. Then, on April 7, the front pages of four of the biggest newspapers in America suddenly wake up to the pandemic’s hugely disproportionate toll on Black Americans. Only then does the White House publicly acknowledge the disparity in a news conference. The only journalist at the briefing to press President Trump on what exactly he plans to do about it is Ayesha Rascoe, a White House reporter for NPR and, of course, a Black woman.
I start to figure out what my newsletter can do. American newsrooms are overwhelmingly white, and the traditional Black press has been decimated over time (because when the white media economy catches pneumonia, the Black media economy goes to the ICU). That means the issues that are important to Black people are chronically underreported even in good times. In the pandemic, a familiar blindness—a slowness—keeps showing up in historically white outlets’ coverage, and I try to do my best to correct for it. I notice, for instance, that stories about essential workers tend to focus on white medical professionals. So in my newsletter I incorporate an interview series called “Essential & Black,” where I talk to Black woman on the front lines: a pregnant hospital food-service worker, a security guard at a social services nonprofit who has several risk factors for Covid, a pharmacy technician living from paycheck to paycheck.
In those early days, too, I notice some finger-wagging media coverage about the supposedly widespread myth among Black people that they are immune to the coronavirus; the implication seems to be that they will behave irresponsibly. (A Pew poll soon finds that, on balance, Black Americans are far more concerned about Covid than white people are.) Later coverage shifts to focus on a whole range of “bizarre” conspiracy theories claiming that the virus is some kind of weapon or plot. Some of these are circulating in the Black community. So I put out an edition of the newsletter, paired with a live Instagram panel discussion, about how to speak to loved ones who might believe conspiracy theories.