'Long Covid': Black women in the US bear the weight of medical racism
A solidarity group on Facebook proves itself more supportive than many physicians projecting racism on women of color in the US against a background of long Covid.
The weight of inequality in the healthcare system falls heavily on Black women. Throughout history, as many revolutionary thinkers have spoken about, including Frantz Fanon, the White man has for long infiltrated the psyche of the Black man through his projection of his racist, dehumanizing perception. This has led Black communities to inherit a trauma, still living on to this day – a dysfunctional loop of self-gaslighting, self-objectification, and slow suffering that lowers life expectancy and quality.
Black communities in the United States – particularly Black women who face the heavier weight of inequality – have experienced medical neglect during the COVID-19 pandemic period. Chimére L. Smith, 40, experienced a case of ‘long’ COVID-19. Thinking that the virus would pass through her system in 2 weeks, she found herself continuing to experience harsh symptoms, such as extreme fatigue, diarrhea, dry mouth, brain fog, and sore throat.
Previously speculating that the symptoms are due to a sinus infection, the exacerbating conditions only seemed to depict a more serious reality that she knew nothing of. Just one month after she knew she had the virus, she had learned that she lost around 14 kg, could not work or drive, had spinal pain, and suffered from complete loss of vision in her left eye. Smith even considered suicide.
Smith visited hospitals tens of times in desperate need of help – however, as many Black women in the US could testify to, the doctors shrugged off the burdening case, with one doctor calling her “aggressive” when she was insisting that she experienced painstaking headaches due to the virus. The multiple visits to the doctors were to no avail, with many coming to no resolution or serious diagnosis.
“I would come in with notes of my symptoms and share these symptoms with these doctors and they would not hear me. They wouldn’t listen to me. They would treat me as if I was a child and I didn’t know my body,” Smith said.
“I wanted to die because I could not eat. I could hardly drink. I couldn’t think. Everything that I knew about my life within those first two or three months had been destroyed.”
While Smith could not find refuge in doctors and those holding expertise, she stumbled across a Facebook group, where she discovered that she was not alone in her suffering and that the oppression is systemic. The group, named the BIPOC Women Long Covid ‘Long Hauler’ Support Group, contains hundreds of ‘colored’ women who experienced long Covid.
Since Smith joined the group in May 2021, she expressed that she feels strong enough to advocate for her health care, as well as that of Black women experiencing long Covid.
According to the US Government Accountability Office, the symptoms that long Covid yields vary from individual to individual – some experience fatigue, other cognitive impairment, and others tissue damage or even organ injury.
Like any given disease or virus, the Black community experiences the brunt of them: Researchers expect Black people’s life expectancy to make a significant drop in the next 5 years as a result. The Facebook group comes as a reaction to this reality, with members finding solidarity and hoping to understand and make sense of the illness and to get the help they seek.
The creator of the support group on Facebook, Dr. Margot Gage Witvliet, who is a social epidemiologist and assistant professor at Lamar University, experienced long Covid in March 2020, speaking of her experience in a TED Talk. She expressed that her symptoms were the worst, compared to her husband and 2 children, experiencing trouble breathing and a seizure. She still suffers from chronic pain, fatigue, and neurological issues.
Despite all this, Witvliet reported that doctors dismissed her symptoms and “infantilized” her – when her glucose levels rose due to the virus, one doctor simply told her to stop eating fried food. When rushed to a hospital because she had a seizure, one doctor asked her if she was on drugs.
“I was not treated with dignity,” she said, adding that on one occasion, her husband, who is white, accompanied her to an appointment, where he received the bulk of the attention. “Yet, I am the one who is a health expert with a PhD and I am not a child.”
After knowing of many women who have experienced such discrimination, she formed the Facebook group which binds together women of color.
“I wanted to be able to use the fact that I was a professor and a social epidemiologist to really help these women who were suffering,” Witvliet said. “So that’s what this group has done. And I’ve met some really phenomenal women, and we have lasting friendships in this group because we’re all unified by this trauma that’s happened to us.”
Despite numerous shocking testimonies, Witvliet divulged that Covid researchers may not understand what women of color struggle with: “We’re not honing in enough on how the social determinants of health are going to impact the recovery process — and that’s going to look different in different subgroups. And I think that that’s like an elephant in the room that’s not being discussed,” she said.
Smith, on her part, is calling on the government to address health care inequalities, testifying about her illness at a congressional hearing in April 2021.
“Many of us have lost our health care because of long Covid and because we don’t work anymore,” Smith said. “We need quicker turnaround times for social security decisions and actual acknowledgment from our federal government — that long Covid is a condition and it’s a medical diagnosis.”