African Americans in Georgia wary of returning to work as community struggles with impact of COVID-19

"Why are the barber shops? The bowling alleys? It's a little weird."

Kebbi Williams has some specific questions for Georgia Governor Brian Kemp about the reopening of non-core companies in the state last week.

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Georgia was one of the last states to impose a home stay request and close non-essential businesses in early April to stem the spread of the new coronavirus and is among the first to start lifting these restrictions.

As of Friday night, the state had about 27,494 Confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus and 1,167 deaths. The seven-day moving average of recently confirmed cases was in decline since April 20, according to the state health department.

"I would like the governor to relax and let everything fly, and then everyone can get back to work, not just the front line, which is mostly black in this situation," he said.

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Williams is a Grammy-winning saxophonist and runs a music orientation program for children in the inner city of Atlanta, which was suspended because of COVID-19.

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Grammy-winning saxophonist, Kebbi Williams, put on his musical mentoring program for downtown kids because of COVID-19. (Katie Simpson / CBC)

He says he understands that people need to work to survive, but fears that these same people will be placed in an unfair position to choose between exposure to the new coronavirus and feeding their families.

In the United States, a greater proportion of African Americans and members of the Latinx community work in the service sector than in other population groups, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

On a demographic breakdown of the 2018 workforce statistics, found that 24% of employed African Americans and 24% of Latin American workers worked in service occupations compared to 17% of Asian workers and 16% of employees who identified themselves as white.

CLOCK When Georgia begins to lift restrictions, some residents worry that it is too early to return to work:

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Georgia's black population has been hardest hit by the COVID-19 outbreak and is highlighting health care and economic inequality in the state. 1:59

African Americans disproportionately affected by the pandemic

Kemp allowed some sectors of the economy to reopen last Friday and suspended the order of shelters there on May 1 for everyone except the elderly and "clinically fragile".

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Many of the companies that have reopened, including nail and beauty salons, restaurant dining rooms, movie theaters, gyms and bowling alleys, are based on services.

"We have a lot of black people with the virus – why, why put us on the front lines and just open up?" Williams wonders.

"It doesn't look like he's thinking about us."

Willie Edwards says he reopened his barbershop in Atlanta because, otherwise, he wouldn't be able to pay the rent. (Katie Simpson / CBC)

Georgia is the most recent state for which data have been released showing that African Americans are being disproportionately hit by the new coronavirus.

AN Study of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last Wednesday, analyzed eight state hospitals. Of the 300 patients who needed to be hospitalized for COVID-19, more than 80% were African American.

African Americans represent approximately 30% of Georgia's population.

People exercise at the Gold & # 39; s Gym in Augusta, Georgia. The gyms were among the non-essential companies allowed to reopen last week. (Maranie Staab / Reuters)

Small county hit hard

In Dougherty County, a rural community of about 90,000 people in the southwestern part of the state, of the more than 120 deaths from COVID-19, 76% are African-American, according to the country's coroner, Michael Fowler.

"I know these individuals in our community, and that is why I am fighting for our community. I am tired of closing a bag with someone I know," said Fowler.

Dougherty County has the highest number of deaths in the state, despite its small size and fourth largest number of cases per 100,000 people.

Michael Fowler, a Dougherty County coroner, is preparing to enter his small rural morgue. The community suffered the most deaths in the state of Georgia. (Yaz Johnson)

Fowler does not criticize Kemp or question his decision. But with his small morgue already full, he is asking people in the community to stay home.

"Money is not that important, you can replace the house you lose, the car you lose, your job, but you cannot replace life. Life is very precious," he said.

Governor Kemp upheld his decision during a news conference in Atlanta on Monday, citing historical unemployment figures after the pandemic.

"I just gave people the opportunity to reopen who was literally about to lose everything they have," he said. "These are difficult decisions. It was not a mandate. They don't have to do that, but they have the opportunity."

WATCH Salons, restaurants and tattoo parlors slowly resume business in Georgia:

Georgia allowed more non-core companies to open this week, easing weeks of restrictions on COVID-19, but many customers still chose to stay away. 1:58

Access to health care is a factor

Cher Salmon, owner of a beauty salon in Atlanta, says she is grateful for the opportunity, but would rather not have returned to work.

"It really wasn't a difficult decision because, as I said, I have no choice. I have to start working. If there was a choice, I would still be closed," she said.

The salmon is eight months pregnant. She requested loans and donations in the hope that she could remain closed, but did not qualify.

The pandemic is also drawing attention to the longstanding challenges that African Americans have faced in accessing health care in the U.S., according to Mack Willis Senior, executive of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP.

"It's like someone walking up to the wall, turning on the light and exposing all these disparities in healthcare," he said.

Willis is currently recovering from COVID-19, as are his two grown children.

Mack Willis Sr., pictured third on the left with his family, is recovering from COVID-19 and says the pandemic has shed light on racial disparities in access to health care. (Mack Willis Sr.)

He wants this crisis to start a conversation about how these disparities can be corrected.

"This is an image that needs to be redrawn, because there is something wrong with that."

According to a December 2019 Report by the Century Foundation, which describes itself as a non-partisan think tank, "the American health care system is full of inequalities that have a disproportionate impact on people of color and other marginalized groups."

While gains have been made since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, the report states that "disparities in health conditions still exist when comparing African Americans and whites, including maternal mortality, infant mortality, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other health problems ".

So far, only one & # 39; piece of information & # 39;

With COVID-19, "it looks like there is a racial divide," says Mohammed Ali, a family doctor and associate professor at Emory University's global health faculty.

But he says more data needs to be collected before drawing definitive conclusions.

"It is not clear which drivers are happening, all we have is this piece of information that shows big gaps," said Ali.

"Traditionally, the African American and Hispanic experience in health care, both in accessing it, in insurance, as well as in the way the health professional treats you, these have always been very different."

A COVID-19 test site in Conyers, Georgia. There are indications that the coronavirus has disproportionately affected black Americans, but there is still much to learn about why. (Curtis Compton / Atlanta Journal-Constitution / Associated Press)

There is another factor at play here, says Ali.

"We think there is an association with obesity and there is a high presence of obesity and diabetes in the African American population."

In his view, the decision to reopen non-essential businesses was premature.

He fears that the hardest-hit communities may suffer even more if the rules of physical distance are not followed precisely.

"I worry about those communities that have big explosions, so we are likely to see fires in counties and postal codes that simply cannot pay."

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