What’s Race Got To Do With It?

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ou probably won’t see a post from me until Sunday evening, so let me get some things out of the way before the main event today.

  • A few people have been asking me for a picture of your OP, so I’ve included one today. This is after Zorgi finished a long update for the day, and he’s just chilling.
  • Z Score: this is proving to be popular; however, I screwed up. I had a stat class 30 years ago, and I have to admit I forgot about the z-score in statistics – the distance from the mean in standard deviations. So I’m going to call this the Zorgi Index instead.
  • California counties reorganization. Last night, a wrench dropped into my update machinery. The CA DHHS moved their entire database to a new platform, and suddenly my data downloads stopped working. I’m sorting this all out, but it will take a few days. There is some good news, though. They now have a downloadable dataset that includes available hospital beds and icu beds by county by day. No more guessing how close we are to capacity!
  • By the way, I had someone helping me with downloads, but I’m not sure he’s available. If any of you out there are OK with Google apps script and can modify the download script I have to get the new data, please DM me — I’d be eternally grateful.
  • Every time I turn on the news, they’re shouting about the explosion in cases. Yes, it’s bad, but cases are not the whole story by any means. That’s why I came up with the Zorgi Index ( ZI for short ). The ZI is not a predictive indicator like R0; it is a summation of metrics at the present moment. So there’s a huge difference between the ZI and the models created by reputable epidemiologists. I don’t have the desire or the credentials to compete with or supplement them.

Today, there are only two slides:

  • A screenshot of the covid tracking project’s racial data tracker main page.
  • Cases & Deaths by Race/Ethnicity for California

What’s Race Got To Do With It?

There’s a huge recession. Millions unemployed. On top of that, a disease is spreading quickly for which there is no known cure. The US Public Health Service is desperate to get willing participants to enroll in a study to learn more about this terrible disease. They promise free medical care, and 600 people sign up.

The participants are a mix. Two thirds of them have the disease; one third of them don’t. Since there is no cure for the disease yet, they give everyone a placebo, such as aspirin or mineral supplements.

The study goes on like this for 30 years. In the meantime, an effective treatment is developed, but this would ruin the study, so the participants are kept on the placebos. They die, go blind, or become insane, and have a host of other medical problems as well.

Fast forward 30 years. An investigator in San Francisco reads about the study. Why, he wonders, aren’t the participants given effective treatment? Is this ethical? The Public Health Service reviews it and finds that yes, it’s perfectly ethical. The investigator is frustrated. He reports his findings to the press. In 1972, following public outrage, the study is terminated.

Ring a bell? Yes, this is the infamous Tuskegee Experiment, a stark reminder that medicine and racism do not have some sort of wall between them.

Now fast forward another 48 years. We have a disease for which there is no known cure or vaccine. Thirty million people are out of work. We have a president who constantly implies that the virus will disappear like magic. We have governors who don’t want to make people wear masks. There are sheriffs who won’t enforce mask wearing ordinances. And we have ignorant citizens who storm council meetings claiming that wearing a mask is taking away their liberty or forcing them to breathe abnormal amounts of CO2.

Add to this another salient point. We are most definitely not “all in this together.” In New York, black people are 18% of the state population, but have twice the death rate as whites. Louisiana is one third black, but they have 70% of the deaths. Illinois: 15% are black, but 43% of those who died are black. In Arizona and Utah, there are around 300,000 Navajos, about 5% of the population. They’re 20% of the deaths in the state. (See this article in WebMd for more). Across the country, Latinx people are hard hit. In North Carolina, they are 10% of the population, but 45% of the cases.

Now take a look at the main chart for today. The one on cases and deaths per 1M people represents normalized metrics. From that, you can see that there are 1,612 cases per 1M whites. For blacks, there are 2,68 – 59% more than whites. For Latinos, there are 5,064 – 214% more. For all other non-whites (Amer. Indians, Pacific Islanders, etc.), there are 16,675, or 934% more than whites.

The same is true for deaths. In this category, even Asians outpace whites – 133 to 127. Blacks have 222 deaths per !M, or 75% more than whites. Latinos, with 150, have a death rate 18% higher. Surprisingly, the rate for other non-whites is 106, or 17% lower than whites. This may change, though, given that deaths lag cases by around 2 to 4 weeks.

It is clear that in the US as a whole and California as well, the pandemic disproportionately affects people of color, not by a little bit, but a lot.

When people in positions of authority play down the pandemic, suggest that it will magically go away, refuse to enforce mask regulations, they are in practice ignoring these disparities. They are going along with a system that endorses and perpetuates them. As was the case 50 years ago, they know there are more effective ways to deal with the crisis, but they don’t want to employ them.

Those who are without authority and go to government meetings claiming that forcing them to wear a mask would be outraged at the suggestion that this is in fact a racist act. “What! How can you say this is racist? It has nothing to do with race!! It’s all about my personal freedom!”

They, like many, many Americans, view racism primarily as a question of attitude. This is why they regard the comparison of their response to the pandemic with the Tuskegee Experiment as an outrage and beyond the pale And they’re right in one sense. If you believe the most important part of racism is personal attitude, then the comparison falls apart. Many of them probably even have non-white friends.

Yes, the death of George Floyd had a lot to do with Chauvin’s attitude. But the outrage morphed into one that forced America to take a look at systemic racism. We all can participate in a system, even those who are harmed by it. Of course, it’s a lot easier to defend a system if you are privileged by it. That’s why it’s incumbent on people like me to analyze our roles in the system: are we fighting to extend the privilege we have been given by that system, or are we doing something to change it?

But wait, you ask, how can you say the pandemic just affects people of color? Clearly there are thousands of whites who are affected directly by the pandemic as well. By making this into a “race thing” you are saying their illnesses and deaths don’t count.

To that I would argue that while systemic racism confers privilege on whites, it is a double-edged sword. Whenever entire classes of people are pushed aside, it primarily hurts those who are disenfranchised, but it also makes those who benefit exceedingly sloppy and incompetent.

The people who are systemically discriminated against are not against the government per se; they’re against a system that hijacks the institutions of power and uses them to perpetuate privilege. And those who rely on a system like this eventually end up in the swamp of cronyism, tribalism, and incompetence. The tiny fraction of people who control such a system may rouse their base by talking about the “Kung Flu” or the “Wuhan virus” but they end up hurting millions of white people too.

The people who act, from the President on down, as if they’re tired of this whole thing and want to move on to something else — how are they any different from the Public Health Service that reviewed the complaint about the Tuskegee Experiment in 1972 and decided that everything was OK?

There’s one big difference, though. The Tuskegee Experiment involved 600 men, mostly sharecroppers, and their families. This involves hundreds of thousands of people who have died or are severely ill, and non-white people are dying in disproportionately larger numbers.

Indifference to the pandemic, refusing to wear a mask, holding an inside rally in a state where cases are rising quickly — this is all saying the system is doing just fine and there’s no need to change it. The Tuskegee Experiment can’t be legitimately discussed as “pure science” without discussing racism, just as the experiments of Mengele are part of the canon of antisemitism. We need to ask the same hard questions about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stay well & healthy, everyone! See you Sunday night!

Many of you have generously offered to give me money, coffee, burritos, and other material rewards. I really appreciate that. If you’re still so inclined, I’d urge you to donate to the Equal Justice Initiative.

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