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Racial Disparities Emerge During Epidemics — Like The 1918 Flu


In American epidemics, race is a pre-existing condition, writes Soraya Nadia McDonald. Well, the coronavirus is no exception. So far, from the Midwest to the mid-Atlantic to the Mississippi Delta, the coronavirus has hit African Americans especially hard. One-third of the Americans hospitalized in March were black. That's despite being only 13% of the U.S. population. McDonald, who is culture critic for ESPN's The Undefeated, writes that while viruses don't discriminate, people do. And she goes back to the flu pandemic of 1918 to trace how systemic and longstanding this is.

Soraya Nadia McDonald, welcome.

SORAYA NADIA MCDONALD: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So describe what was happening in 1918. You write that African Americans were more likely to live in conditions where disease might spread and then, if they did get sick, less likely to get good medical care.

MCDONALD: Exactly. So it should be understood overall that there wasn't necessarily great medical care for the flu period. You know, the standard sort of treatment for the flu would be, like, lots of rest, lots of fluids and stay away from other sick people.

KELLY: Which sounds familiar.

MCDONALD: Exactly, right? But, like, even within that framework, black people during the 1918 flu pandemic are still at a disadvantage, and most of those reasons have to do with structural racism.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, give me this specific example of Chicago in 1918, which you write about.

MCDONALD: This pandemic basically hits right before the U.S. is entering World War I but also, like, right in the middle of the Great Migration. And so what that means is that you have black folks who are coming up to Chicago from the South who are basically fleeing sort of extraordinarily violent racism in the form of lynching, in the form of sexual violence - all these things that are propelling black people to move further north. And what happens is that they're not necessarily greeted with open arms. There's already this sort of alarmism even before the flu breaks out.

KELLY: Just looking at the pictures that go with your article - I'm looking at the wards where they were being treated literally in basements.

MCDONALD: Literally in basements, yes. So you can imagine, right? It's small, enclosed, not a whole lot of sunshine. You know, they're often really dank. There's usually a moisture that we associate with basements. None of those things are ideal conditions if you're a sick person who has the flu.

Even the flu itself sort of becomes pathologized, and black people sort of get blamed for it even though everyone is getting sick. You know, so the - you know, you see folks who are basically saying, oh, they're bringing this infection with them. You know, and that is not necessarily, you know, a view that could be considered outside of the mainstream because you have a reporter for The Chicago Daily Tribune, as it was known at the time, who's writing these articles saying as much.

KELLY: I mean, it resonates in so many painful ways today. I'm guessing many Asian Americans listening might feel the resonance of that, you know, in the way that we have heard the current coronavirus being called the Wuhan virus or the China virus.

MCDONALD: Exactly. So that goes sort of across class lines. That's the other thing that you see in sort of these parallels between 1918 and 2020 in terms of this sort of racialized scapegoating.

KELLY: You sound, sadly, not shocked that we're seeing these numbers of African Americans that are out of whack with the general population.

MCDONALD: Yeah because, like, these are sort of longstanding problems, right? We can still see the legacies, say, of redlining in Chicago. You know, we can still see housing inequality in New York and all of these other cities across the country, you know, where black people basically flocked during this part of the 20th century. You know, like, Detroit is another example. And so really, I think what we see is happening is just a magnified example of all of these inequalities that have basically preexisted.

KELLY: Soraya Nadia McDonald of ESPN's The Undefeated talking there about her article headlined "In 1918 And 2020, Race Colors America's Response To Epidemics."

Soraya, thank you.

MCDONALD: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.