The Racial Disparities of the Spanish Flu to COVID-19

It’s worth examining the social dynamics of the 1918 Spanish flu compared to COVID-19 today in 2020. Until today, the 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe in recent history. It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Mortality was high in people younger than five, 20-40, and 65 years and older. The high mortality in healthy people, including those in the 20-40 year age group, was a unique feature of this pandemic. It resulted in 50 million deaths around the globe, 675,000 of which were American. The first cases in the U.S. were identified in soldiers living in close quarters in Army barracks before heading to Europe to join the war, which the United States entered in April 1917.

Discrimination during the Spanish Flu

Black people who caught the flu were often left to fend for themselves. They received low-quality care in segregated hospitals, where they would get attention in close quarters in basements. They were only allowed admittance to black-only hospitals. Even in death, black bodies were neglected.

Black Americans from 1918 to 2020 have continued an increased susceptibility to diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes. However, even with that said, with the 1918 epidemic, the incidence of influenza was lower in African Americans. 

In Chicago, Dr. Roscoe Giles was a doctor for wealthy Black people. The Chicago Defender was the source of all news in the black community. But for those less fortunate, Provident Hospital, the nation’s first black-owned and -operated hospital, was one of the few places where black people could be seen and treated. Provident was crucial in training black nurses.

“If you caught influenza, you were obligated to self-quarantine and then report that you had caught it to the Department of Public Health, and then they would come to your house and placard your house, like put a big red sign up on your house,.” The Public Health Department mandated that people needed to wear a mask. And what a group of black Chicago ladies do is they start innovating with the masks and making them out of delicate lace and exquisite jewels. So even in the face of the pandemic, they looked fabulous in these diamond-studded flu veils.

Current Statistics

 In 2020 for only 3,300 of 13,000 COVID-19 deaths — African-Americans accounted for 42 percent of the deaths, the Associated Press reported on April 9. Those data also suggest the disparity could be highest in the South. For instance, Black Americans account for over 65 percent of known COVID-19 deaths in both Louisiana and Mississippi.

New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

In Illinois, most infections are in Chicago; 28 percent of the 16,422 confirmed cases as of April 9 were African-Americans. Still, African-Americans accounted for nearly 43 percent of the state’s 528 deaths. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report looked at hospitalizations for COVID-19 across 14 states from March 1 to 30. Race data, available for 580 of 1,482 patients, revealed that African-Americans accounted for 33 percent of the hospitalizations but only 18 percent of the total population surveyed.

Overall, Many believe there was a lack of accurate data collection during the public health crisis 1918 and even today. The possibility that Black American influenza cases in 1918 may have been underreported because 

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