Three weeks is a lifetime during a global pandemic, and a lifetime ago I would joke with my two older brothers and a few close friends about unfounded rumors that we, as black people, were somehow immune to the coronavirus.
Early reports from government agencies about new cases across the globe didn’t elaborate on the race of sick patients at the time, so in that vacuum of information, we applied humor. We aren’t laughing much these days, because now we know the startling truth: Black people are contracting and dying from this virus at alarming rates.
I’m seeing the data reflected in real time on social media. More and more of my black friends are posting on Facebook about how their uncle or cousin or grandmother has tested positive for the virus and has been hospitalized.
Processing this new normal isn’t easy. Sometimes while scrolling through my timeline, or as I’m reporting a story, it feels as though my chest is tightening. I also rarely sleep through the night anymore. One of my brothers, Blair, called me Sunday and told me he broke out in a cold sweat, for the first time in his life, while standing in line at a grocery store. On the way home, he had to pull over to the side of the road to throw up.
“What’s going on with us,” I asked him.
“I think this is anxiety,” he said.
Black Americans are not a monolithic group. We come from varying socioeconomic backgrounds, and the plight of one person does not represent that of another. Still, the black community I grew up around didn’t prioritize mental health. Depression was written off as just feeling down. Anxiety was just a sign you needed to sleep more.
What this pandemic has done is shown me the importance of self-care, something I didn’t know much about, or have a vested interest in, before now. I’m not alone in this realization.
While recently reporting on what some Bay Area chefs were doing in the community to help people who may be struggling with access to food, I spoke with Oakland pit master Matt Horn about a few of his recent barbecue pop-ups where he gives away food for free. As of Wednesday, Horn had given away more than 2,700 free meals in West Oakland.
The work has been constant and stressful. Horn, who is black, has a young family. He texted me Monday saying he was thinking about eventually taking some time off — but only after he delivers food to the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland on Friday.
When it comes to thinking about self-care during trying times, he said: “That’s something I neglected.”
There’s no break from hearing about the plight of black Americans. We’ve now become the face of this virus. The issue was addressed at the White House on Tuesday by President Trump, who said officials were “trying to find a reason” for the high death rates among black people. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, described the predicament as “sad,” but added there is “nothing to be done right now.”
Back in Louisiana, where my family lives, 70% of the state’s more than 650 coronavirus-related deaths were African American patients. Black people constitute only one-third of Louisiana’s population.
The situation doesn’t appear as disheartening in California. Gov. Gavin Newsom released limited data breaking down coronavirus patients and deaths by race in the state. Black people in California account for 6% of reported cases and 3% of overall deaths. Newsom also said the data are based on looking at fewer than 40% of the overall cases.
In a way, this may be good news. But as someone whose close friends and loved ones mostly live in other states where the numbers are bleak, California’s numbers don’t give me much comfort.
The jokes about coronavirus immunity among black people may be gone from group texts and the phone calls I have with folks back home. I think we’ve discovered something better to speak about: admitting that mental health matters.
Addressing out loud with others how this virus is reshaping my world is as important as wearing masks and gloves or washing my hands. And though the pandemic is stripping many of us of our physical freedoms, due to sheltering in place and social distancing, I’m hoping that the young black people I know can walk away with much-needed life skills, including coping with tragedy. As much as the pandemic takes, perhaps this can be something it gives.