The Toll: Black community leaders on COVID-19’s ‘surreal’ and disproportionate impact
Black residents account for 16.5% Erie County’s COVID-19 deaths despite making up 14.6% of the county’s population, according to the Erie County Department of Health. Today on “The Toll,” Black community leaders discuss the virus’ disproportionate impact on people of color in Buffalo.
The novel coronavirus has infected more than 14,000 people across the eight counties of Western New York, according to the New York State Department of Health. The virus has also claimed the lives of at least 787 people in our region. WBFO’s “The Toll: Western New York Stories of Loss & Survival in a Pandemic” will air weekly on Thursdays during Morning Edition in August and September, telling some of the personal stories behind those numbers.
Amplified through a sound system set up in the parking lot at the temporarily-closed Jacobi’s Restaurant and Pizzeria in South Buffalo, Murray Holman’s voice boomed across the intersection of Abbott Road and McKinley and Southside parkways on a humid evening in July.
“Come on, blow these horns,” Holman said to passing drivers. “We need to hear these horns blowing if you’re registered to vote!”
Holman, 56, is executive director of the Stop the Violence Coalition and one of the leaders of the coalition-affiliated anti-violence and mentoring group the Buffalo Peacemakers. He’s also a COVID-19 survivor.
“Being a community activist and dealing with the issues of what happened with George Floyd and other people [killed or injured by police], and people just starting to protest, I was going out into that environment—down to City Hall, all these places—and contracted the virus myself,” Holman said, adding that he was able to quarantine and recover from his mostly-asymptomatic case at home.
Luckily, none of Holman’s immediate family members contracted the virus after he tested positive, but he said he still knows plenty of people—most of whom are Black—who also had the virus.
“It had to be about 15 people that really came forward and said they were positive,” Holman said, “[but] a lot of people not being honest. That’s the hardest part about this thing here.”
Holman and several other Black Buffalo residents WBFO interviewed said there’s a stigma associated with COVID-19 in the city’s African American community, which has been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. As such, Holman said he suspects that he knows a lot more people who probably were or are sick but who don’t want to get tested or share their results.
“You cannot keep this a secret,” he said. “It’s a lot of people that’s running around here right now that won’t get tested because they fearful that they might die or—you know, this is not a secret virus.”
There are many reasons why the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately impacted people of color and Black people in particular in New York State and across the country. Black people are less likely to have access to health care than white people and more likely to have pre-existing health conditions that can make COVID-19 infections more severe. Black people are also more likely to work ‘essential’ jobs, which puts Black workers and their families at greater risk for exposure. These disparities are evident when you look at state and local infection and fatalities data, and, anecdotally, from the stark difference between talking to white people and Black people in Buffalo.
“I don't think anybody in the community didn't know someone or have direct relatives that were impacted,” said Fajri Ansari, the religious leader of Masjid Nu’man, one of the oldest mosques in Buffalo, which is located on Fillmore Avenue on Buffalo’s East Side. Ansari added that the mosque is mostly attended by people of color, including new immigrants from Africa, South Asia and the Middle East.
“Predominantly, our community is historically African American, but if you come to a Friday service now, it’s starting to look more like Mecca [a city in Saudi Arabia and the holiest site for Muslims], which is very, very diverse.”
In addition to serving as imam at Masjid Nu’man, Ansari also leads a second diverse community as the head men’s basketball coach at SUNY Buffalo State. Many of his players and Ansari himself are from New York City, so the virus hit very close to home.
“One of my one of my former players, a recent player who just left a couple years ago, he lost his mother to the COVID, and then I had a player this year whose grandmother contracted it,” Ansari said. “And, you know, high school teammates—I lost a high school teammate [and] people I grew up with.”
The news was so bad from New York, back in March and April, Ansari said, that he almost didn’t want to call home. At the same time, he was hearing about the challenges that his wife, Dr. LaVonne Ansari, was encountering in her role as CEO of the Community Health Center of Buffalo, Inc.
“They had to intervene because people were being turned away from the hospital, and that happens too, with people of color. They don’t have an advocate, don’t have anybody to really speak for them,” Ansari said, explaining that the pandemic revealed more kinds of the same systemic discrimination that he’s been aware of all of his life.
“I have former players [and] I knew [other] people who have been incarcerated, and it’s the same thing—it’s almost, I hate to put it [like that] but it’s institutionalized. In prison, if you don’t have visitors and they don’t feel you have anybody really looking out for you, then you just get treated like nothing,” Ansari said. “But if they know you got people writing you or conversing with you, in contact with you, [or] you have an attorney or whatever, then they’ll treat you different. It’s almost like a class status.”
Back at the voter registration drive, 61-year-old Willie Green, vice chair of the Stop the Violence Coalition, waved at every car that passed and hustled to hand paperwork and black t-shirts that read, “I Vote to Make a Difference,” through their open windows. Green is full of energy now but said he had his own scare with COVID-19 in late February.
“I didn't understand the pain that I was in. I didn't understand why I couldn't put my sock on and my shoe on, and I couldn't lean my body from left to the right side,” Green said. “I didn't even know I was on a ventilator for two days. I thought I was in the hospital for a few hours.”
Green said it wasn’t until May that an antibody blood test confirmed he’d had the virus. And by July, COVID-19 had ravaged his community.
“We got to save lives because each life matters. You know, it might not touch you today, but when it touch you tomorrow, you'll have a different outlook on it. Believe me, I know. I've lost 14 people in my family to this virus,” Green said. “I've had 29 family members and friends that had this.”
While Black people don’t have the highest overall number of COVID-19 deaths in Erie County, they do have the highest death rate of any racial group, according to state data. Adjusted for age—a measure that facilitates better comparison between groups with different age structures—Black Erie County residents have died at more than three times the rate of white residents (68 per 100,000 people compared to 21 per 100,000 for white people).
Holman said he sees something biblical in that kind of devastation.
“I will remember this decade as very close to [the Book of] Revelations, close to a time that has already been projected that we're gonna have these epidemics and things like this. I'm seeing it. We living witnesses to some stuff here that was already predicted a while back,” Holman said. “We say it all the time, ‘God’s coming back.’”
Ansari, of course, holds different religious beliefs, but he agreed it’s surreal to be living through such epic and historic times. He also said he sees a comparison between the sacrifices the pandemic is requiring humanity to make and the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, which every Muslim is required to make at least one time during his or her life, and where everyone worships together regardless of their gender, politics or nationality.
“The whole sense of pilgrimage is really about universal unity with the people from all over the world,” he said. “So, it made me think, with this COVID, it kind of really exemplifies the need to have that kind of respect and common unity. Because when you don’t, and when you make a personal decision maybe to practice social distancing or not… it has a direct impact on others.”
CORRECTION Sept. 17 @ 1:10 p.m.: An earlier version of this story relied on preliminary New York State Department of Health data that found that Black residents accounted for 25% of Erie County’s COVID-19 deaths. The story has been updated with final Erie County Department of Health data.