While Black Chicagoans comprise just 19% of COVID-19 cases, they account for 40% of COVID-19 deaths, writes Eric Salem of the Respiratory Health Association. | Getty

covid pandemic chronic disease black chicago pullman socialism haymarket letters

Noting that Black Chicagoans die 8.8 years earlier on average than their white counterparts, the City of Chicago recently declared that racism is a public health problem. Mayor Lori Lightfoot pledged to invest nearly $10 million in “health equity zones,” with the funding to be used for anti-racism training and other initiatives to transform communities.

What wasn’t explicitly mentioned was any effort to directly address the leading cause of the racial gaps in life expectancy — chronic disease.

Today, chronic illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease and diabetes represent the leading causes of death in Chicago, accounting for 60% of the nearly 20,000 deaths in 2019. While comprising just 33% of the city’s population, Black Chicagoans account for 54% of citywide deaths due to COPD, 51% of deaths due to diabetes, 49% of deaths due to heart disease, and 60% of emergency room visits for asthma.

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It is not surprising that, according to the city’s health department, deaths due to chronic disease are responsible for 50% of the Black-White life expectancy gap.

In the first 17 months of the pandemic, COVID-19 took the lives 5,336 of Chicagoans. More than 90% of these people had at least one or more underlying condition or secondary cause of death noted. Almost all were chronic diseases. And while Black Chicagoans comprise just 19% of COVID-19 cases, they account for 40% of COVID-19 deaths. The COVID-19 pandemic has become not just an infectious disease outbreak, but a chronic disease crisis.

With numbers as stark as these, one might expect the city’s investment in chronic disease to be similar to that directed towards other current public health priorities such as violence, opioid addiction and mental health. Yet the city budget reveals that just $1.5 million—- less than 0.3% of the department’s total $518 million budget — supports chronic disease activities. This translates to just 55 cents per Chicago resident — for conditions that are responsible for 60% of annual deaths.

Yes, racism is a public health problem, and yes, part of the solution should be to address anti-racist policies. But those actions alone will be inadequate to reduce the racial disparity in life expectancy unless funding is committed to directly combat the chronic diseases that are killing Black Chicagoans.

Erica Salem, MPH
Senior Director, Strategy, Programs and Policy
Respiratory Health Association

Thanks for Pullman, Haymarket and socialism

Thank you for Monday’s editorial about Chicago’s Pullman community. As a teacher at Morgan Park High School, I remember dining at the Florence Hotel in Pullman twice a year on days when children were not in school.

It’s wonderful that you told the story of the Pullman Strike that started the ball rolling on worker rights. I think we also should be telling the story more of Chicago’s so-called Haymarket riot of 1886. As a teacher of the Russian language and literature, I visited the former USSR, and it was only then that I learned of the Haymarket affair. It was not an event prominently told in our history books, but it was socialists who really led us down the road to an eight-hour day and benefits for workers.

I know that popular media paint socialists in a bad light, but it was immigrants from Germany who organized workers against the capitalist class in Chicago. They were socialists. And when one thinks about it, Jesus was a socialist as well, although that term did not exist 2,000 years ago. He asked us to give to others the coat we do not need.

Janice Gintzler, Crestwood

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