COVID-19, the viral coronavirus that has shut down countries, halted travel, and forced the global society to engage in “social distancing,” is now officially a pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced Wednesday.

COVID-19 has invaded and infected 114 countries, killing more than 4,000 people, NBC reports. There are more than 120,000 confirmed cases worldwide.

“This is the first pandemic caused by coronavirus,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared at a briefing in Geneva. “WHO has been in full response mode since we were notified of the first cases. And we have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear.”

The people most at risk for being diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC, are:

  • Older adults
  • People who have serious chronic medical conditions like:
    • Heart disease
    • Diabetes
    • Lung disease

And Black communities exist at several intersections, which means that we potentially face more harm.

“Based on my research and experiences in New Orleans after Katrina, Cancer Alley, and other travesties of environmental racism, I can say with certainty that scientists have very little idea about how deadly this thing is,” Arlene Eisen, writer, activist, and retired public health specialist, tells ESSENCE. “Even bearing in mind the data presented, remember that it’s an average of all those who have contracted COVID-19—young and old; healthy immune systems, and compromised immune systems, regardless of race, class, etc.

“We know that the risk for death from COVID-19 is highest among people 65+ and/or people with respiratory, heart and other underlying conditions,” Eisen continued. “Asthma, COPD, and other conditions that are rampant among people of color, targets of environmental racism, no health insurance, and food desserts all make us much more vulnerable.”

While Ghebreyesus estimated the mortality rate to be approximately 3.4%, “his figure was calculated by dividing the number of deaths by the number of officially confirmed cases,” the Guardian reports. Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for England, and the UK government’s chief medical adviser estimates the rate to be 1% or lower.

A number that Eisen says we must interrogate.

“A death rate of 25% among the minority of the general population averaged with a death rate of <1% among most healthy folks will give you an average death rate of around 1%, but that is meaningless for the ones who have the 25% risk.”

Spearheaded by Kelly Hayes, grassroots organizers have released a list of demands created to preemptively stop inequities in exposure, diagnosis, and treatment for the most vulnerable populations, including:

City and state governments must take measures to ensure adequate protective measures for health care workers. All hospitals and care facilities must brief workers on what measures are being taken to mitigate the risks they face when providing care. 

State governments should offer a safety hotline (which is not routed to law enforcement) that people who experience racist or xenophobic violence related to COVID-19 can call for assistance.

Medical teams must be dispatched to jails, prisons, halfway houses, and other locked facilities to assess and treat patients. Most facilities already have inadequate medical staffing and an outbreak will likely lead to many people failing to come to work. Physicians on-site must have the authority to dictate necessary changes in facility conditions in order to treat the sick and stem the spread of the illness. Iran has temporarily released 54,000 imprisoned people to prevent COVID-19 from spreading like wildfire through the country’s prison system, creating new outbreaks and new geographic concentrations of the disease. We believe this tactic must also be considered in the United States given the overcrowded state and torturous conditions of U.S. jails and prisons.

Read the full list of demands here.

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