Death toll of Chicago’s 1995 heat wave revealed same racial disparities as coronavirus today

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CHICAGO — Chicago experienced the deadliest natural disaster in its history 25 years ago this month when 739 people died in a heat wave.

Now the city is facing over 2,500 deaths and counting during another major health crisis: the coronavirus pandemic. The causes are different, but in both cases the elderly and minorities are the hardest-hit. But why?

Dr. Linda Rae Murray practiced medicine at a Cabrini Green health clinic in the ‘90’s, and is now sheltering in place during the pandemic. She says the similarities between them are undeniable, and it all comes down to race and the inequities that stem from it.

“It’s the result of the structural condition, the racism that’s baked into our country,” Murray said.

The 71-year-old retired former Chief Medical Officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health said her great frustration is that the city, county and state continue to ignore the needs of our poorest neighborhoods. 

During those 25 years in-between the two crises, Murray says not enough changed in Chicago, and the virus highlights the deep problems that exist when it comes to health care, housing, jobs and education for minority communities.

“This strips away the veneer that exists in our society and exposes deep structural inequities that cause differentials in morbidities and mortalities,” Murray said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, minorities are 4-5 times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19. The agency attributes the disparity to long-standing systemic health and social inequities putting them at increased risk of getting the virus or experiencing severe illness regardless of age. 

Death rates also tend to be higher during public health emergencies generally, whether that’s a hurricane, a heat wave or even a global pandemic.

“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,” Murray said.

That was clear to her back in 1995, as well, when a stark image of refrigerated trucks grabbed headlines. She knew exactly what was going on.

“Well, I was really very concerned when news began to report the refrigerated trucks, a clear indication the me’s office was overwhelmed,” Murray said.

Dr. Murray says authorities at the highest levels knew a pandemic was coming at some point, but resources on Chicago’s south and west sides were lacking – just like in 1995. 

Systemic racism at the root of it all, Murray believes, as the underserved are ignored once again, and slow to get personal protective equipment, enough testing and proper treatments.

“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,” Murray said.

Among her suggestions for helping to break the cycle plaguing Chicago are reallocating funds and reordering Chicago’s priorities.

“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 ppl live or die,” Murray said.

Dr. Murray says structural racism operates without a bad guy, or someone acting deliberately and consciously. It’s in the background of America’s normal process, and any kind of pressure like a heat wave or a pandemic exposes the issue yet again.

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