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Chicago’s 1995 Heat Wave Predicted ‘Baked-In’ Racism in COVID-19 Deaths

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In a bitter echo of the disproportionate suffering seen during Chicago’s killing heat wave of 1995, Black residents of the city are now facing a similar onslaught from the coronavirus pandemic, an injustice owing to “baked in” structural racism, says a former chief medical officer for the Windy City.

Twenty-five years ago this month, 739 people died in an extreme heat event, with the most acute losses centred in Chicago’s predominantly poor and Black south and west sides, reports [1] Chicago’s WGN-9.

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Mourning a pandemic death count that now stands at 2,500 and growing in the city, 71-year-old retired physician Linda Rae Murray, who was chief medical officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health in the 1990s, spoke with WGN-9 about her frustration with the racism that continues to effectively guarantee high levels of mortality in Chicago’s Black neighbourhoods, with the poor and elderly hardest-hit.

“This has been going on for centuries and if we don’t come to grips with our racism and structural inequalities that exist in our nation, this nation will fall apart,” she said. “The virus doesn’t care if you are Black or Latino or Native American, doesn’t care, but we create conditions that make it impossible for groups that are oppressed to fight off the virus effectively.” 

The pandemic, said Murray, “strips away the veneer” of progress on race-based inequities. Profound, generation-spanning disparities in education, health care, housing, and jobs have “baked” racism into the very fabric of Chicago, just as they have at the state and federal levels. 

Findings from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention support Murray’s argument, WGN-9 reports. “Minorities are four to five times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19,” according to the CDC—a shocking statistic that the agency attributes “to long-standing systemic health and social inequities putting them at increased risk of getting the virus or experiencing severe illness regardless of age.”

Flagging the insidious nature of structural racism—that it “operates without a bad guy, or someone acting deliberately and consciously”—Murray urged authorities to take whatever system-level action [3] is needed before her country comes apart at the seams. To start, she suggested, Chicago officials could immediately reallocate funds and reorder their priorities. 

Individual resolve and actions, however, are not to be forgotten. “It’s a combo of what we do as human beings and how we organize our resources in society that are really the most important part of whether people live or die,” she said.