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

Police tape cordons off a swing set outside Forest Swim Club in Ann Arbor in Washtenaw County, where African Americans make up nearly half the hospitalizations from COVID-19 but 12 percent of the population. (Bridge photo by Kathryn Dugal)

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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christopher o'l...
Thu, 04/09/2020 - 5:19pm

My thoughts on racial disparities and Covid.
Covid 19 virus targets ACE2 protein receptor. ACE2 helps regulate blood pressure. Severe pneumonia leads to large fluid in lungs. ACE2 helps regulate fluids in the body and Covid 19 distracts ACE2. Perhaps populations with unmanaged BP suffers worse outcome from Covid19

Angel Angel of ...
Thu, 04/09/2020 - 6:10pm

Soooo everything outside of Detroit is considered "out state?" What is this reporting on Black v. White. We could round and round on this all the time excluding other marginalized populations meanwhile maintaining a racial binary. We all know there are other people out there.

This is a really shallow article and shallow thinking! So Baldwin is out state even though it has a large Black population. Muskegon anyone?

Middle Eastern populations? Migrant farm worker populations?

Don't ignore Native American communities because ya'll erase us all the time.

Robyn A Tonkin
Fri, 04/10/2020 - 10:55am

I don't understand why you are angry about everything outside of Detroit being considered "outstate". It's always been that way, it's not pejorative, it's just a way of looking at the state.
What is it you really dislike about this article? I don't find it racist. I find it hardhitting and uncomfortable. Do you dislike the information that an interviewee stated that black Americans get their news from social media, as opposed to news outlets? Do you dislike it that an interviewee stated that black Americans thought they could not contract covid 19, and made jokes about what made them invulnerable to the disease? Those are uncomfortable statements. The article also made it clear that an important reason for the high infection rate among black Michigan residents is due to the health effects that arise among people who are poor and marginalized. I found this article to be very balanced--there is blame to go around. Impoverished black Michigan residents have been neglected, and black Michigan residents did not heed warnings to take covid 19 very seriously. Black Michigan residents were discussed in this article because of their high covid 19 death and infection rates, given their population percentages in various jurisdictions and areas of the state. This is a glaring fact, and one would hope it is a call to arms to rectify the root causes of these high death rates.

Dave N.
Thu, 04/09/2020 - 6:22pm

Lifestyle choices, like voting, have consequences. If the black community has chosen poorly, then the culprit is in their mirror. The same holds true for all people, including myself. It's unfortunate that some people measure every thing through the racial lens. The article could have just mentioned the impact beyond the tri-county area, but no, the authors had to throw in race. I'll go along with the democrats identity politics and say, not my race, not my problem.

John D Doe
Thu, 04/09/2020 - 11:53pm

Hypertension is the leading cause of death for blacks. Diabetes is most common in blacks. Both are mitigating factors that lead to death from the Chinese coronavirus. Whether it is from genetics, lifestyle, diet, etc. is for the doctors to argue over, leave 'racism' out of the topic..you're supposed to be nonpartisan.

Fri, 04/10/2020 - 8:35am

Our governor (and most Democrats, just ) lives in a world where everyone (that matters, excluding bitter clinging deplorables) works for or lives off the government, some non-profit, parasite (trial lawyers etc) or big corporation. Is there a surprise she lacks any understanding or sympathy for the rest of us that work in a world for customers who voluntarily hire us?

Fri, 04/10/2020 - 9:15am

Is it my imagination that with a deadly virus that affects ALL of us; in the U.S. , we turn it into a racial issue? Each racial group has its own socializing habits. These habits are generations old and hard to break, and perfectly accepted by that racial group. We have now wasted a wonderful opportunity to bridge that divide, we continue to fertilize and grow. Come on folks, humanity it far better than this.

Fri, 04/10/2020 - 9:28am

How are some of the other poor communities that have large African American populations, such as, New Haven or the larger Benton Harbor? Areas where the school system were/are on the list of being the worst how are they being affected? I think the dividing of the state saying a large part of the state is really "out state" divides people. Disappointed the article didn't contain areas outside the SE MI bubble.

A quick random search with Muskegon pulls up an article from Woodtv "In Muskegon County, the mortality rate for COVID-19 so far is nearly 1 in 10 — four deaths of 41 positive tests — twice the state average." The article also mentions a hard hit in the African American community.

Fri, 04/10/2020 - 9:31am

Interesting that another group that has a substantially skewed impact from this virus is gender-based.....males have nearly a 50% higher rate of death from COVID-19 than women (58% vs 42%) despite males making up a smaller percentage of the overall state population.

Looking forward to the state task force that examines that disparity.....

Fri, 04/10/2020 - 9:36am

Article should have mentioned more parts of the state: New Haven, Benton Harbor, and Muskegon for example. Also an outlay with top and bottom performing districts (10-20) to COVID rate might be good at knowing if education quality is affecting medical care (should we be offering extra adult education/literacy classes in areas with education that is not high enough to help people function. Should public housing include Home Economics classes and other helps to help people get ahead?

Mark T
Fri, 04/10/2020 - 11:41am

I saw this quote from the article and am very confused:
“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.” How does the AP come up with 42 percent? The ratio calculates to slightly over 25 percent (3,300/13,000). I saw this same statement in the original AP article, What am I missing?

Fri, 04/10/2020 - 3:09pm

Leave it up to liberals to make yet another situation about race. This is why you folks lose elections in real America.

Jennifer Gansnome
Fri, 04/10/2020 - 3:26pm

Now that the Governor has created a task force to look into the racism of the Chinese flu, everything will be fixed. Once government creates an agency, the problem is solved. So don't worry about this issue any more.

Chuck Fina
Sat, 04/11/2020 - 7:36am

I can personally confirm that the numbers in this article are false.

Fake news, move on.

Craig Reynolds
Sun, 04/12/2020 - 12:39am

Kindly supply the data for your assertion. Else it's merely more carping.

Sat, 04/11/2020 - 7:36am

Why do we need a task force? Our national Attorney General did a great job of explaining all of the reasons for the disparity. So, what do we do about it? Throw more money at a situation that needs change from within? Sadly, until people take advantage of opportunities and take personal responsibility, nothing will change.

Bob Marry
Mon, 04/13/2020 - 9:48pm

no worries now- the governor formed a task force. once a task force if formed, the problem is solved

Wed, 04/15/2020 - 12:03pm

I continue to be frustrated, by the accusations of race disparities. Humans are better than this. The reason for disparities may go back 10,000 years or so. Differences go more than skin deep. Obvious color difference, sickle cell difference, plus other things. Each racial group, Black, Native American, Asian, European, we each have our frailties. The only thing we have in common is jealousy and stupidity. Let’s show this virus, man and woman, is more powerful that it is.