A Message The Black Community Needs to Hear: Rona is Not Playing, Y’all

NJ Advance Media's Barry Carter reports

We have a problem right now with some folks in the black community.

Most are acting responsibly -- but some, and that sum, whatever the numbers maybe, makes me shake my head and tug at the brim of my fedora. They believe they’re invincible, that the coronavirus will never catch them, and they are taking a huge gamble with their lives and the lives of others as this highly contagious disease rips through the nation.

Here’s my message to New Jersey’s black community, which I have covered for many years:

Rona is not playing, y’all.

Get off the block and out the parks. Stop gathering openly and privately -- especially for some of you who are trying to be on the sneak, opening up businesses from a side door, telling cats to come on in and get that haircut.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka correctly put a barber, who has been violating the business shut down, on blast Thursday night during a Facebook Live update about the virus.

“We have your information," Baraka said. “We’re submitting it to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. You will be hearing from us." And Baraka had a message for those dumb enough to sit in the guy’s chair: “You’re going to go in there to get a haircut and come out with the coronavirus."

Newark police have been clamping down on those ignoring social-distancing mandates: More than 824 summonses have been issued over the past week. Forty-four businesses, allegedly operating illegally, have been closed.

What are these violators thinking? Have they been watching the news? Reading about the unprecedented tragedy? Black people are dying of the coronavirus disproportionately. Statistics often can be boring, but these numbers should make your heart race.

According to the Washington Post: Chicago’s population is about 30 percent black, but so are nearly 70 percent of those in the city killed by the virus. Milwaukee County looks worse: Black people make up 26 percent of the population, and a whopping 73 percent of covid-related deaths. In Michigan, it’s 14 and 41; in Louisiana, it’s 32 and 70. Maryland has a 30 percent black population and reported Thursday that black residents account for 40 percent of the state’s deaths.

We don’t know the federal statistics yet, because there aren’t any.

A coronavirus snapshot of New Jersey is a screaming siren for blacks, too, after the state released early (but incomplete) data. As of Thursday, 1,700 had died of the virus in the state -- 61 percent are white, 22 percent are black, and 6 percent are Asian. Less than 1 percent are native or Pacific islander, roughly 10 percent are under review.

Because blacks compose 15 percent of the state’s population, those statistics worry Ryan Haygood, president and chief executive officer for the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice. He sent a letter to Gov. Phil Murphy this week asking for a robust accounting of racial and demographic data to help black leaders get a handle on what’s happening.

Haygood wants the state to answer basic questions: How many blacks have been tested? How many have tested positive? What is the fatality rate? How many have been hospitalized? What are the statistics for incarcerated blacks, youths and adults?

Even without complete data, we know blacks are dying of coronavirus at alarming rates. Doctors believe it’s because of underlying health issues prevalent in the black community, such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and asthma. These pre-existing conditions make victims more susceptible to the coronavirus. Limited access to health care is likely another factor.

The bottom line: If you’re black in New Jersey, the coronavirus is more likely to be a death sentence.

Listen to those who have been brought to their knees. The wife of a Detroit bus driver pleaded in a television interview for us take this pandemic seriously. Her husband, and father of their six children, died days after catching the coronavirus. Before he was stricken, he posted a video on Facebook after a passenger coughed several times without covering her mouth.

He was one of those essential workers the public takes for granted. They are on the front lines with nurses and doctors, and many have quit their jobs because they don’t think they’re safe. Health care workers are dying. This is real, people.

Remember Scared Straight, the prison program in which inmates serving life sentences told young people to stop their criminal ways or they’d end up behind bars with them? I wish those who are violating the shelter-at-home guidelines could be jolted into reality by spending a shift in New Jersey hospitals, watching doctors and nurses struggle to keep people alive as respirators whir and beep into the night.

Unfortunately, I’m not hopeful and optimistic that the knuckleheads will wise up.

It’s Easter weekend and churches that normally would be filled should be empty. Newark police will make sure. There are ways to worship without putting people at risk, and hundreds of New Jersey churches are offering virtual services. Churches that still will host services make us wonder: Is this about the right to worship the Almighty, or the ability to collect the Almighty Dollar?

This weekend, stay out of church. Have Easter or Passover meals only with those you’ve been living with. Don’t invite friends and family over.

“I cannot say this strongly enough: We cannot gather together," Gov. Phil Murphy said. "There cannot be large community seders or gatherings — either indoors or outdoors. We will have to get creative to come together virtually so we can gather together someday soon in person.”

Baraka hopes to effectively shut down the entire city in an initiative he will call “Be Still Mondays.” Next week, he will ask essential businesses, like grocery stores, to close voluntarily once a week until May 17, a city spokesman told NJ Advance Media.

As of Thursday, the deadly count in Newark is 98, out of 2,163 people in the city who have tested positive. It’s not business as usual anymore. We have to do what we have to do right now, so we can do what we want to do later. And as spring takes hold, don’t be lured outside. That message is even more important to the black community living in cramped city quarters.

Don’t turn cabin fever into the coronavirus.

“Don’t let the warm weather or the holidays fool us,” Murphy said. “We are in the fight of our lives.”

This, too, shall pass. The question is, are we willing and disciplined enough so we can be here when it does?

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