© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

COVID Infections Tied to Race, Poverty in Shelby County

The Shelby County Health Department revealed long-awaited data Wednesday showing that African Americans are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus epidemic. 

"We are seeing that COVID-19 is having a disparate impact on our minority communities," said epidemiologist David Sweat. 

Of all the diagnosed COVID cases in Shelby County so far, 68 percent are black. Nearly three quarters of the 21 people who have died from the virus here have been black. Officials say that black communities are susceptible to high morbidity due to chronic health problems such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. 

But Dr. Scott Morris of the Church Health Center says that COVID's so-called racial disparity can be misleading. 

"I personally find a hard time understanding how race matters anywhere near as much as poverty matters," he said. 

Morris says economic questions are not asked at testing sites --questions that could explain why rates of infection are higher in poorer households. Many people living together, for example, or jobs that don't have insurance or paid sick leave contribute to a higher infection rate. 

"They don't collect that kind of data, but as it turns out, poverty affects people of color, particularly in Memphis, greater than it does anyone else."

Morris doesn't fear that poorer people will receive second-class medical treatment from health care professionals, even as more people fill hospitals with the virus. But as the "surge" in infections nears the predicted peak, Morris does worry about scenarios like those seen in other countries in which doctors must make the difficult choice of who gets access to high-demand supplies like ventillators. In dire shortages, Morris says, decisions rest upon whether patients have pre-existing medical conditions that might inhibit recovery. 

"And who has high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and is obese?" he asks. "We're back to that's an issue of poverty."

And in Memphis, a city in which about 30 percent of the population live in poverty, the coronavirus could soon reveal a need for more economic data in the statistical analysis of infections. 

Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher has covered Memphis news, arts, culture and politics for more than 20 years in print and on the radio. He is currently WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.