Editorial: Delays in educating city's black community about coronavirus risks cost lives

Editorial: Delays in educating city's black community about coronavirus risks cost lives

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An entire month has passed since the coronavirus scare rattled St. Louis to its core and officials started escalating efforts to limit public gatherings and halt the virus’ spread. Yet it wasn’t until Saturday — long after the major damage was done — that canvassers began handing out flyers and hanging posters in black-majority areas of the city. A lack of concentrated neighborhood-education efforts almost certainly played a role in how this pandemic has exacted a particularly heavy toll on the black community.

A failure by local governments to provide key demographic information in the early days of the outbreak also helped delay responses when it became evident that ZIP codes in largely black and low-income areas were being hit the hardest. We now know that the first 12 of St. Louis’ 19 deaths from the coronavirus were African Americans, while the infection rate is disproportionately hitting black communities — not just in St. Louis but across the country.

What has long been known about the virus is that patients with preexisting health conditions, particularly asthma, diabetes and heart problems, are especially vulnerable. Armed with that knowledge — published for weeks in this newspaper and made abundantly clear in the daily White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings — why didn’t local officials act sooner to raise awareness in the neighborhoods where such health conditions are known to be prevalent?

It’s one thing to issue general social-distancing guidelines, as St. Louis Health Director Dr. Fredrick Echols did late last month in an online town hall meeting. It’s an entirely different matter to target the alarm at the highest-risk areas — areas that lack uniformly available internet access. When it comes down to either putting food on the table or paying for internet or a newspaper subscription, the choice is obvious. But the result is a lesser-informed yet highly vulnerable sector of the population. Misinformation also has played a role: A false rumor has circulated in the community, Echols says, that blacks are somehow immune.

Adding to the complications are well-founded community fears about wearing face masks while shopping. Masks on black people, as The Washington Post reported last week, can evoke entirely different responses from police and store owners. Whites are seen as protecting themselves from the virus. Blacks too often are presumed to be up to no good. One consequence is a greater reluctance to wear masks while grocery shopping, where the risk of coronavirus transmission is high.

Add to that the higher probability of minorities occupying the lower-wage jobs that necessarily entail greater risk of exposure, such as supermarket cashiers, baggers and shelf-stockers or city maintenance workers forced to ride close together in crowded truck cabs.

The time to have engaged in a public-education campaign targeting the most vulnerable areas was before tragedy descended on them. Some might argue: Better late than never. But tell that to the families who have paid the heaviest price learning this costly lesson.

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