DES MOINES — Betty Andrews is reminded these days of a well-known saying in the black community.
When white America catches a cold, the saying goes, black America gets pneumonia.
That phrase has become all too real during the global new coronavirus pandemic, across the U.S. and in Iowa, where minority communities are bearing a disproportionate burden of the spread of the virus and COVID-19, the disease to which it leads.
Latino Iowans comprise just 6 percent of the state’s population, but they make up 23 percent of the confirmed cases of the coronavirus here.
Black Iowans comprise just 4 percent of the state’s population, but they make up 13 percent of the confirmed cases of coronavirus.
Those figures are according to U.S. Census and state public health data.
“We tend to take on a large brunt of what’s happening,” said Andrews, who serves as president of the Iowa and Nebraska branch of the NAACP.
Outbreaks at food processing plants, where high shares of minority workers are employed, and myriad institutional socioeconomic factors are causing higher coronavirus infection rates in minority communities, experts and advocates say.
In Iowa, the food processing plant outbreaks are the primary driver of spikes in the Latino infection rates. Outbreaks have occurred in at least a half-dozen plants throughout Iowa and just across the state’s borders in neighboring states, leading to many hundreds of confirmed coronavirus infections. Many of the plants shut down while attempting to disinfect work areas and take steps to protect workers from further outbreaks. Some are back online.
Typically, employees at food processing plants work in close proximity along production lines. Such conditions are ripe for spread of the virus, which is highly contagious when people are gathered close together, especially indoors.
More than a third of animal slaughtering and processing workers in the U.S. are Latino, according to federal statistics.
“It has nothing to do with DNA,” said Joe Henry, political director for the Iowa chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “It has everything to do with these buildings that are sweatshops. They’re incubators for the virus. It’s a death march for these workers every day, going into these buildings.”
Top officials at the companies that operate the food processing plants in Iowa have said they are taking steps to protect the safety of their workers. Gov. Kim Reynolds has said those leaders have assured her of the same. Some of the companies say they have slowed production in order to allow workers to stand farther apart, installed barriers between workers, and staggered shifts and breaks so fewer workers are gathered together at the same time.
But workers privately continue to share with advocates and journalists their concerns about working conditions at the plants during the pandemic.
“We need a coalition of Iowans to speak up about this,” Henry said. “We need to fight for the rights of these workers, for their safety and health and higher wages.”
Black Iowans were behind the 8-ball before the new coronavirus pandemic hit, making the virus’ impact even worse in black communities, Andrews said. There are higher rates of obesity and diabetes, for example, among black Americans, according to federal statistics. Those are the types of health issues that make individuals more susceptible to the virus’ more serious impacts. Black Americans also experience a higher rate of poverty, which also can be tied to poorer health.
The federal government also has observed disproportionate impacts of the virus in minority communities. In addition to higher rates of underlying health issues and working in food processing and manufacturing jobs, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports other factors may include minority Americans living in densely populated areas and multi-generational homes, and a higher share of minorities in jails and prisons, all places where the virus can more rapidly spread.
“A number of social reasons that exist because of the dynamics of our country prior to this situation, and obviously we as Americans generally need to do a better job taking care of our health,” Andrews said. “And that is exacerbated when you have communities that are poor, which communities of color tend to be.”
In minority communities, once a person contracts the virus, the problems only multiply, advocates said. Getting tested for the virus and getting the proper health care can be challenges.
Henry and Andrews said minority Iowans have reported difficulty getting tested for the virus, and that some minority Iowans — especially those living in poverty — infected with the virus may not get the proper health care for fear of not being able to afford a trip to the doctor, or not having an established relationship with a primary care doctor.
“When you’re talking about the communities that have access to less financial resources, that means they also have less access to consistent health care,” Andrews said. “So (they’re) not necessarily being able to communicate that (health care concern) initially because they don’t necessarily have a relationship with a provider.”
The CDC’s first recommendation for public health officials to address the disparate impact of the coronavirus on minority communities is to “ensure that communications about COVID-19 and its impact on different population groups is frequent, clear, transparent, and credible.”
The NAACP in early April requested Iowa’s state public health department report the racial and ethnic breakdowns of confirmed coronavirus cases. The state has been reporting those numbers.
But the state does not report the racial and ethnic breakdowns of coronavirus-related deaths in Iowa, making it impossible for the public to know whether minority Iowans are dying at a higher rate than their neighbors.
Nor is the state reporting the racial and ethnic breakdowns of coronavirus testing in the state, making it impossible for the public to know to what degree minority communities are being tested.
State public officials said this past week they may start reporting the breakdowns in virus-related deaths once they have sufficient data. They have not made a similar pledge about the testing numbers.