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‘We need help’: Coronavirus ‘devastating’ black cities in outstate Michigan

One month since Michigan’s first case of coronavirus, the pandemic is taking a far heavier toll on African-American communities statewide, from metro Detroit to Ypsilanti and Flint to Lansing.

A Bridge Magazine analysis of available public health data shows the disproportionate impact on African Americans has spread from southeast Michigan — a national hotspot for COVID-19 — to outstate.

In Genesee County, home to Flint, African Americans comprise 20 percent of the population but nearly half the coronavirus cases and deaths. They make up half the hospitalizations in Washtenaw County, despite being 12 percent of the population.


And while data are limited, current statewide totals show 40 percent of Michigan’s nearly 1,000 coronavirus deaths are black. But the toll is likely higher since race is listed as “unknown” on 25 percent of all deaths; 14 percent of the state population is African American.

"I'm afraid it will be 50 percent," said state Rep. Tyrone Carter, a Democrat from Detroit who contracted COVID-19 over a month ago. "I pray that it's not.”

On Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a task force that will examine racial disparities in the pandemic, saying they are “reminding us of the deep inequities in this country.”

Experts point to a host of factors, from urban density and underlying health conditions to poverty, access to quality health care and delayed messaging in cities. Whatever the case, it’s not unusual for some African Americans in affected communities to know several others who have died already from the virus.

Yodit Mesfin Johnson knows 10.


“To see my friends losing loved ones, it’s devastating,” said Mesfin Johnson, a community activist and CEO of the nonprofit NEW in Ann Arbor.

“These are real people. These are mamas and papas and grandmas and grandpas. We need help.”

The inability to mourn the dead together magnifies the losses, as “we’re isolated and unable to hold on to each other in our grief and pain,” Mesfin Johnson said.

In Flint, where half of Genesee County’s 700-plus cases involve African Americans, people are terrified, said Bishop Bernadel L. Jefferson, pastor of the Faith Deliverance Center.

"You sit in fear," Jefferson said. "Not being able to get the supplies, not able to get the things for your well-being."

Unlike Detroit, where cases have declined in recent days, infections and deaths are rising in Flint as the coronavirus moves north throughout the state.

"It's going to get worse," Jefferson said.

‘Surprised that people are surprised’

It’s not just Michigan. 

Nationwide, African Americans in cities such as Chicago, New Orleans and Milwaukee have been infected at greater rates, while the Associated Press reported this week that African Americans comprised 42 percent of the nation’s deaths where demographic data were made public, some 3,300 of 13,000.

“I'm not surprised and in fact I would say that it's expected,” said Dr. M. Roy Wilson, an ophthalmologist and president of Wayne State University. “I'm somewhat surprised that people are surprised.”

Wilson, who worked on strategic planning on minority health and health disparities at the National Institutes for Health, said poverty and lower levels of education have left more minorities exposed to the virus through jobs that can’t be done from home.

African Americans also are more likely to have a harder time with the virus because of underlying health conditions, Wilson said.

According to the state Department of Health and Human Services, African Americans in Michigan have higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure, asthma, heart disease, strokes, diabetes and kidney disease — all medical conditions that make people more likely to die or be severely sickened by the coronavirus.

That’s reflective of the “social determinants of health,” state chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun has said. Poverty makes it hard for some African-American communities to access healthy food and safe neighborhoods, she said. That can lead to increased rates of other diseases that make people susceptible to dying from the virus.

Wilson said those underlying conditions create a quicker sequence, or cadence, from “morbidity to mortality.”

“During a pandemic, that cadence is going to be greatly accelerated and so whatever health care and health issues existed in normal times, whether it was on the lack of access to health care because of insurance or high prevalence of comorbid disease, all of that is going to be greatly magnified,” he said.

Communication in a time of peril

The coronavirus began in China, moved to France and Italy before it turned up in the United States earlier this year. After hitting a nursing home in suburban Seattle, initial worries were among the elderly.

By then, many African Americans had exchanged memes on social media that they couldn’t get the virus, said Carter, the state representative. Wayne State’s Wilson too said the myth was rampant.

Carter said he heard people laugh that since they drank water from a garden hose as kids, they couldn't get the virus.

"Not funny anymore and definitely not true," Carter said.

And though he lauded Whitmer for her “blanket” approach in attacking the virus, he said many in the African-American community might not have tuned in to the wall-to-wall news coverage.

“They don’t watch the news. They get [information] from their friends and social media,” he said.

The City of Detroit on Thursday rolled out a Twitter campaign featuring former Detroit Piston Rick Mahorn, telling people,“Detroit, we’re facing a new enemy right now. It’s called COVID-19.”

“Culturally responsive… messages need to be sourced and shared by local influencers,” said Mesfin Johnson, the Ann Arbor activist. 

In Ypsilanti, Bryan Foley has created videos with photos of community members and a message about staying home and staying safe. Mesfin Johnson’s group Black Men Read delivers book bags at food distribution sites with a note that says “as best you can, try to stay home,” she said. “We love you, you matter to us.”

Planning for the outstate influx  

In Genesee County, Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley told Bridge he anticipated his city would be hard hit and began working on expanding services in mid-March.

He’s ordered the restoration of service to homes without running water and implemented a citywide curfew, and has asked officials of the majority-white county to direct more resources to his majority-black city.

“They say all the right things … but when it’s the showing versus telling, it’s a different story,” he said, adding that there’s a demand for PPE and other health care resources everywhere right now.

He pointed out that the coronavirus is the latest example of health disparities in a nation rife with them.

“This is more of the generational health care disparities not just for this event, it’s always been in place,” he said. “This is just the climactic moment of showing how the disparities really have shown up in our nation.”

On Tuesday, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel took to Twitter to implore “every one of us who serves in government [to] double-down on our commitment to do right by the African-American communities.”

“It’s terrifying,” Nessel told Bridge, adding she has had several friends who have been sickened or killed by the virus.

She said communities of color need more ventilators and PPE, and African Americans need more access to affordable health care and wider testing. 

“I wish there was a solution and somebody could just come in and provide all the resources that need to be provided as quickly as possible and specifically targeted to communities that have been hit the hardest,” she said. 

“I just don’t know at this point whether that’s possible,” because of equipment shortages nationwide.

In Ingham County, where African-American residents are infected at nearly three times the rate as white residents, Lansing Mayor Andy Schor pointed to urban density.

“We’re putting out business assistance grants which will have metrics for minority business owners to try to save them, they’ll get extra points for that, because we know that that’s a challenge,” Schor said. “But we’re trying to protect everybody.”

Desolation in Detroit 

In Detroit, which has more than a quarter of Michigan’s deaths, Marsha Music said she has 12 friends who have died and another 24 with the virus. All but one are African American. 

“I feel really numb,” said Music, an author and essayist who writes about Detroit history.  “If I stopped and tried to process the grief, I’m not sure if I can function.” She admitted she has a recurring thought that “maybe this is all a nightmare that I will wake up from.”

All the coronavirus victims she knows were “comfortably middle class,” “highly-esteemed members of Detroit,” she said.

“They were very social and connected in a number of various social circles. Many Detroiters tend to be that way. It’s part of the dynamism of the city.”

Ken Coleman, a longtime journalist and author covering metro Detroit’s African-American community, said that for every day in the past month, a fellow Detroiter that he knows says they have COVID-19. Often, it’s three or four people a day. 

Worse, eight Detroiters he knows have died. All but one was African American, and most are cases in which medical officials say their deaths were coronavirus-related, said Coleman, a reporter for the Michigan Advance news site.  

“I just learned of two deaths last night,” said Coleman. “I can’t even cry about it at this point. I feel numb about it honestly,

“I don’t know if now is the time to fully process this when we are still in the middle of it.”


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