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When talking about the effects of the new coronavirus on the African-American community in Kansas, we should begin by making two points crystal clear.


First, there is nothing about being African American, in and of itself, that would predispose one to contracting the virus or doing poorly if infected. The color of one’s skin — in and of itself — doesn’t mean that a person is more or less susceptible.


Second, focusing on this topic is important. Medical researchers have known for years that different racial and ethnic groups see radically different health outcomes, and that these outcomes are directly connected to social contexts.


With that out of the way, let’s look at the news reported by The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Tim Carpenter and Sherman Smith: “The early indication is the virus has a disproportionate impact on black residents. Data show black Kansans are seven times more likely to die from COVID-19, and three times as likely to be infected.” Unfortunately, “those figures come with a caveat: Race and ethnicity haven’t been recorded for about 10% of the 80 deaths statewide or 20% of the state’s 1,588 positive tests.”


As in other areas of society, this pandemic exposes underlying problems. African Americans in Kansas are less likely to have health insurance, less likely to go to doctor and less likely to have satisfactory experiences when they do so.


Studies have shown that medical professionals often don’t take black patients as seriously as white patients with similar complaints and underestimate the amount of pain experienced by these patients. They aren’t doing this intentionally. They are reflecting the society in which they live.


What's more, the fact that black families often have less wealth and other material resources — based on longstanding disinvestment and neglect of African American communities — means they are ill-prepared for the economic challenges created by virus-related shutdowns.


Solving this problem at the root requires broad-based changes. In the present moment, however, the state could take concrete steps. It could expand the Medicaid program to cover more of those without insurance. It could expand testing capacity, and not just in wealthy communities in the state. It could focus on making sure those in African American communities receive targeted education about the virus.


At the very least, the state has taken a critical first step by releasing this data and beginning a dialogue. Our next steps, though, in actually addressing the problem, could save lives.