Black History Month And Two Pandemics

200 years ago, the population of New York was 123,706.

Electron Microscope Scan of Smallpox

10,086 of those New Yorkers were a mixture of free or enslaved Black New Yorkers or just over 8% of the city’s population. (New York City was, 200 years ago, home to the 4th largest Black population in the United States. Only Baltimore, Charleston, and Washington DC had larger Black populations.)

Exactly 200 years ago, a pandemic also swept through New York City. At that time the pandemic was caused by a disease we don’t typically think much of anymore (it was last observed in 1979, and now only exists in bio-lab stockpiles), but is both deadly, and rapidly spread – smallpox.

394 New Yorkers died in this wave which, when compared to the city’s total population, was an exceedingly small 0.3% of people residing in the city. What the number 394 doesn’t convey is that 113 of those 394 smallpox victims were Black New Yorkers. This means that 29% of the New Yorkers who died, were Black. And while this outbreak of smallpox killed only 0.2% of white New Yorkers, it killed 11.2% of Black New Yorkers.

By comparison, the latest estimate of the national death rate of our current pandemic – COVID-19 – in the US is 1.7% as reported by Johns Hopkins University:

According to the CDC, Black Americans have 2.8x the death rate from COVID-19 that white Americans have. The racial disparity in health outcomes (and in this case the disparity in death rates) as shown in the 1821 data has persisted for hundreds of years. And, while the gulf between white and Black COVID-19 death rates is less than the gulf that existed in 1821, the very fact that a racial disparity exists at all is a national disgrace.

America needs to prepare to exit the COVID-19 era with a clear mission to not only prepare for the next pandemic but to simultaneously fight for equal health outcomes for all who live here.

No country with our resources should be willing to passively accept the stain of racial disparities in health outcomes in the 21st century.

The Atlantic has an article on the last person known to have smallpox before it was declared eradicated in 1979.

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