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Coronavirus fight shifts to Baltimore’s poor neighborhoods as city leaders battle mistrust

A partnership between Food Rescue Baltimore and the Arabber Preservation Society brings food and information to Baltimoreans during the coronavirus pandemic.

The virus came to Maryland aboard an Egyptian vacation cruise, then touched down in the suburbs of D.C., and person-by-person began to creep.

Montgomery County. Harford. Prince George’s. Anne Arundel.

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Those first weeks stamped the coronavirus as a threat largely to white suburbs, not the black neighborhoods of Baltimore. It’s a dangerous misconception that echoes today.

Statistics show a disproportionate number of African Americans are dying of the virus in Maryland and around the country. Baltimore’s leaders are bracing for the outbreak to worsen — and sounding the alarm.

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City officials, doctors, academics, even a star actor from “The Wire” are carrying forth the warning to those most in danger.

“This is going to require a level of outreach to be successful that goes beyond anything I’ve ever seen in my career,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a former Baltimore health commissioner and Maryland health secretary now at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Officials warn that the Baltimore-Washington corridor will be the next hot spot, and the virus threatens to run rampant through the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. A tidal wave of infections here could swamp hospitals and sink the health care system statewide.

Long neglected, these neighborhoods are a crucial front line in the fight against COVID-19.

“This is a moment to realize that what happens to the most disadvantaged has implications for everybody,” Sharfstein said.

Doctors and city leaders can’t slow the outbreak alone; the public must buy in. But in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods, families may not hear the message or trust the messenger. It shows in videos online.

In one, youths dance outside a West Baltimore grocery, singing about the stay-home order as they flout it. In another, men strut down a city street in defiance of the outbreak. Then there’s the woman who calls out after a white police officer coughs at her.

“Oh, I ain’t worried about that sh— —. Y’all get that sh— —. Black people don’t.”

More than the officer’s conduct, the woman’s words alarm Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, an African American Studies professor at Loyola University Maryland.

“What she was yelling out was a lot more dangerous,” Whitehead said. “There’s this myth that black people cannot get the coronavirus. … What began as a lie, a myth, a joke, has seeped very deeply into the black community.”

In Baltimore, where three of five residents are black, efforts are underway to combat the misconception. Whitehead brings the message to her radio show. City leaders are printing flyers to spread in poor neighborhoods. They assembled focus groups to test their messaging strategies.

“We’re actually discussing it, what are the ways we can target our messaging to dispel those myths and rumors?” said Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, the city health commissioner. “There are a lot of myths.”

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Meanwhile, state officials launched a website to debunk coronavirus rumors. At the urging of a city lawmaker and others, Gov. Larry Hogan directed health officials to begin reporting the race of Marylanders who contract the virus. Thursday brought the first glimpse of the disparity: African Americans account for 30% of Marylanders, but nearly half of all coronavirus patients whose race is known. The virus has killed 58 white and 77 black people.

More data is to come. Already, Hogan called the figures troubling.

Researchers predict that the outbreak will continue to escalate in Maryland through late April to early May.

In other states too, the virus began in white suburbs only to spread to African American neighborhoods and bring tragedy. Increasingly, city leaders are turning attention to the inequality of outcomes. In New York City, African Americans account for 22% of the population, but 28% of deaths.

In Chicago, African Americans make up 30% of the population, but 72% of coronavirus deaths. Similarly, in Louisiana, African Americans account for 32% of the population, but 70% of deaths.

In Baltimore, the Pimlico neighborhood has been hit hardest by the virus, with at least 66 cases. Here, four in five residents are black.

The statistics alarm lawmakers from City Hall to the White House.

“This is a real problem, and it’s showing up very strongly in our data on the African American community,” President Donald Trump said. “It’s been disproportional. They’re getting hit very, very hard.”

The deadly pandemic exacerbates health disparities in America’s poorest neighborhoods. In Baltimore, researchers have found some of the country’s worst.

African American babies died at more than double the national rate, as did black diabetics, Hopkins researchers found in a 2010 study. Black Baltimore residents were diagnosed with HIV at a rate seven times the national rate. City statistics have found blacks are far more likely than whites to be hospitalized for chronic diseases and drug or alcohol use.

Factors such as age, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart and cardiovascular disease put a patient at greater risk of hospitalization or death from coronavirus. Further, those in the poorest neighborhoods are less likely to have a primary care doctor, health insurance — or a job they can work from home. They may drive buses, stock grocery shelves and clean, rather than work on their computers.

Worse yet, skepticism abounds in the streets.

One recent morning, two men ventured out to one of East Baltimore’s well-known drug corners, the 400 block of N. Montford Ave. They offered their thoughts, though not their names, after asking a reporter to unzip his jacket and show he carried no gun. They dismissed the coronavirus.

“It’s not going to get to the ‘hood," one of them said. “We don’t even worry about it.”

Their words are more than the bravado of Baltimore’s tough streets. British actor Idris Elba — famous as Stringer Bell from “The Wire” — took to Twitter to tell fans he contracted the virus. The responses startled him.

“My people, black people, please, please please understand that coronavirus, you can get it,” he said in a video from home quarantine. “There are so many stupid, ridiculous conspiracy theories about black people not being able to get it. That’s dumb. It’s stupid, all right? That’s the quickest way to get more black people killed.”

Of course, people of all races have snubbed the warnings. The image of a white Charles County man spread online — his mugshot showing bright blue hair — after he allegedly threw a bonfire party despite the governor’s stay-home order. And a Lutherville-Timonium man was charged with violating the governor’s order after he allegedly hosted a party in Carroll County.

But Whitehead, the Loyola professor, says African Americans have historical reasons to be distrustful, everything from the Tuskegee trials of the 1930s to 1970s, in which researchers withheld treatment for syphilis to sharecroppers in Alabama, to the harvesting of cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s without her consent or compensation.

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Distrust runs deep among many poor families in the shadows of Hopkins.

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“I’ve talked to black people who are afraid if they go in they might not get a ventilator,” Whitehead said.

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Council President Brandon Scott continue to implore African Americans to take the threat seriously.

The Rev. Alvin Hathaway Sr. worries about the men he sees crowded together on street corners while he drives to Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore. He says the coronavirus has revealed not only a disparity of health, but of information.

“I’m just appalled to see that persons are still not practicing social distancing with a sense that this virus doesn’t affect them,” he said. “We need medical professionals of color to be trusted voices to speak to our residents.”

In Baltimore, some are seeking new ways to reach disadvantaged neighborhoods. Music producers arranged the city’s famous club music with a chorus of “Baltimore, put your mask on!”

Mildred Stanfield, sitting on her front steps on S. Arlington Street, reads the flyer about social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic that was included in the bag of free food and flowers given to her by Arabbers from the Carlton Stable. The food giveaway in West Baltimore developed through a partnership between Food Rescue Baltimore and the Arabber Preservation Society. More than 60 bags of fresh food were distributed. April 8, 2020.
Mildred Stanfield, sitting on her front steps on S. Arlington Street, reads the flyer about social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic that was included in the bag of free food and flowers given to her by Arabbers from the Carlton Stable. The food giveaway in West Baltimore developed through a partnership between Food Rescue Baltimore and the Arabber Preservation Society. More than 60 bags of fresh food were distributed. April 8, 2020. (Amy Davis)

One recent afternoon, volunteers packed grocery bags with peppers, mushrooms, onions and pineapple donated by the nonprofit Food Rescue Baltimore. Into each bag, they slipped a city flyer carrying the message to social distance 6 feet, or the length of three city saltboxes. They loaded the bags on a red and yellow horse cart.

The warning would be carried forth by a vestige of old Baltimore: arabbers.

“They’re one of the most trusted institutions in the black community,” said Holden Warren of the Arabber Preservation Society. “Who better to be the emissary?”

At the stable in Southwest Baltimore, Shauna Chaney brushed a black Tennessee trotter with a taste for peppermints. She and other arabbers fastened the red-and-black harness and hitched the cart. A cooler of bleach solution sat on the driver’s seat: homemade hand sanitizer. Masks covered their faces. With wooden wheels creaking and harness bells jangling, they rambled off.

“Free fruits and vegetables!” Todd Cornish called out.

Chaney led the horse cart past Hollins Market, through streets with high rates of poverty.

“Got some information in there," Cornish said, handing another bag. “Make sure you pass it on.”

The virus seemed a distant threat. Neighbors sat together on rowhouse steps. On the street, few people wore masks. At some apartments, three girls played on a slide.

Neighbors here suffer high rates of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Their life expectancy is five years less than the citywide average, among the lowest in Baltimore.

As people crowded the horse cart to reach for a bag, Chaney called out a warning.

“I need six feet away!"

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