Illustration by Robin Carnilius/The TRiiBE

The People is our section for all opinions concerning Black Chicago. Public affairs consultant Vaughn Roland shares his thoughts on heightened anxiety during the pandemic.

Anxiety can push citizens toward trusting the government in times of crisis, but this can leave people open to manipulation. We also find that political anxiety increases support for protective and potentially anti-democratic policies. Anxiety about politics triggers coping strategies in the political world, where these strategies are often shaped by partisan agendas.” – Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World by Bethany Albertson and Shana Kushner Gadarian.

We are in unprecedented times. For the past several months, the Democratic Party has found itself going back and forth about the various issues that have plagued it for far too long. Those issues include income inequality, health care reform, immigration and reforms within the U.S. criminal justice system. 

As we saw several of our Democratic presidential nominees exchange critiques on these issues in 2019, citizens at home were doing the very same thing. From barber shops, beauty salons, and your local VFW post, people just can’t seem to find a unified front on the political issues that matter the most. Tensions flare as people passionately defend policies that concern them.

There are legitimate fears, showing themselves as forms of trauma, about our country’s inability to not just acknowledge but also to solve its problem of oppression and economic inequality. But the American public, more specifically African Americans and other people of color, are all too familiar with constantly being disappointed, forgotten and left abandoned in the shadows of the U.S. political agenda. 

As America debates some of the most important policy issues of our time, I am most concerned about the Trump Administration’s national voter suppression efforts. In late April, Politico magazine’s Zach Stanton explained a “nightmare scenario” around the effects of COVID-19 on our elections and how the administration could potentially impinge on our voter rights. 

“The nightmare scenario goes something like this: Large numbers of voters become disenfranchised because they’re worried it’s not safe to vote and that participating makes it more likely they catch the coronavirus. Voter-registration efforts, almost always geared toward in-person sign-ups, bring in very few new voters. A surge of demand for absentee ballots overwhelms election administrators, who haven’t printed enough ballots. In some states, like Texas, where fear of coronavirus isn’t a valid reason to request an absentee ballot, turnout drops as Americans are forced to choose between voting in person (and risking contact with the coronavirus) or not voting at all.”

In one of the most pivotal elections of our lifetime, the Trump administration is trying its hardest to influence voter turnout by making it as difficult as possible for citizens to vote. Given the “new normal” of social distancing through the avoidance of larger crowds and constant disinfectant usage, there should be state and federal efforts to ensure the ease of voting by mail.  

Conservative states including Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, Ohio and Texas (among others), have taken direct steps to make voting by mail difficult or even nonexistent. 

The president’s quiet, yet destructive federal judicial appointments have been at the root of his attempt to make America a more conservative-leaning country. Trump has appointed 51 out of the 179 active circuit court judges, or almost 30% of the entire bench. These conservative appointments will have a long-lasting impact on not just our voting rights, but also issues including health care and our criminal justice system. The regression of modern-day public policy is happening right before our eyes. 

Now, add in a global pandemic. Health disparities within the African-American community are nothing new. We understand that we suffer from inequalities that some of our other counterparts do not. From health issues including diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, kidney failure, heart attacks and the overall lack of access to quality health care, we continue to struggle with things that simply assist us in living healthy lifestyles that allow us to thrive.

My father would always say “when America catches a cold, the African-American community gets the pneumonia.” In places with large African-American communities, we saw that the virus rapidly spread exponentially through them, from Florida to Louisiana, and even in my hometown Chicago. In addition to systemic public health disenfranchisement, stigmas around receiving regular checkups and our diets are major cultural factors regarding how we constantly seem to sit atop several health disparities. 

I’ve even experienced the residual effects of the stigma around the healthcare profession, through distrust or plain fear of seeking treatment. Recently, my grandmother experienced some irregular chest pain. As we know, chest pain is one of the leading symptoms of COVID-19. Scared to death, she received an EKG from the Austin Family Health Center and was told things looked normal, but they wouldn’t rule out a trip to her primary care physician for further tests. As her concern continued, the pain increased. Not able to find availability with her doctor, she considered going to a local emergency room. 

I quickly drove her to Loyola University Medical Center because there was no way she would go to Loretto Hospital (a budget-strapped safety net hospital that has struggled to remain open and provide quality care) or West Suburban Medical Center (where several of her friends have gone in for “routine” procedure and complained about the lack of equipment and quality of care). 

We arrived at Loyola’s ER parking lot where three nurses and two security guards stood outside assisting patients in and out. I quickly stepped out to check the temperature of the facility and posed a question to one of the registered nurses on duty “How is it inside? My grandmother is experiencing chest pain.” 

She replied, “We can’t guarantee anything, and yes people are coughing and sneezing inside.” 

My grandmother quickly closed the door and said, “Take me home.” Praises to God, after another EKG, her heart is in good shape and she’s COVID-19 free, but the overall anxiety of a virus traveling from person to person and surface to surface was stressful enough to scare my grandmother into thinking she had some form of a heart attack. 

One could say this type of experience would deter individuals from going to the ER or seeking testing sites around the city. “There were fewer calls for emergency help from January to April for several life-threatening conditions, including heart and asthma attacks, chest pain and strokes,” WBEZ reported. Its analysis saw a specific drop within the Austin community, along with Near North Side neighborhoods — both predominantly Black and Latinx communities.  

In early April, an NPR report stated that Black residents make up 29% of Chicago’s population, while a whopping 74.2% of the city’s residents who died from COVID-19 were Black. 

According to Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH),  52% of people being tested for COVID-19 are Black. Health officials reported similar numbers with the Latinx community as well. The latest report from the Illinois Department of Health (IDPH) stated the Latinx community has now surpassed the African-American community in total numbers of positive COVID-19 tests and deaths. 

Citizens around the country are being forced to wear masks, shelter in place (in some states) and accept the new normal of Depression-level unemployment numbers, exposed deficiencies of an underfunded health care system and uncertainty. This new normal sounds all too familiar to African Americans.  

After the vast spread of the “Black twitter” myth that Black people couldn’t contract COVID-19, these numbers are insanely frustrating. Now, mix this with the lack of public health infrastructure throughout our community and overall distrust of government. Our community is ripe for misinformation and outlandish conspiracies that deny science and statistics. Oppressed groups are known to rely on conspiracy to make some type of sense out of their situation. There has to be more to the virus than what they’re telling us, because we never get the full story, is what we say. Meanwhile we don’t trust the numbers, nor the entity in which they come from.

Still, there’s no vaccine available and tests are not being widely provided. And yet several states are beginning to reopen their economies. 

Say hello to anxiety. 

In the midst of a pandemic, the bodies of African-American men and women have continued to be plundered, hunted, discarded and left as a statistic. Just like the very same statistic reported on how COVID-19 has ripped through our communities exposing the holes not just within our healthcare institutions but holistic systemic forms of oppression within our communities.

BIO: Vaughn Roland is a public affairs consultant specializing in politics, government relations, public policy and coalition building. He is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago. You can follow him on Instagram @Anativeson.