This spring, as the coronavirus tore through New York City and spread to places like New Orleans, Marcus Campbell knew his home of Sumter County, Alabama, was particularly vulnerable. Rural residents die at higher rates from heart disease, cancer, and stroke than those in cities, and black people in rural areas die at especially high rates. Roughly 75 percent of the areas most vulnerable to the coronavirus are in the South, according to the Surgo Foundation, a research group that built an index to survey COVID-19 vulnerability. Likewise, 75 percent of the people in Sumter County, in the rural Black Belt of West Alabama, are black. The county’s residents expect to live 74 years; five years less than the national average. Forty-five percent of the people who have died of the virus in Alabama have been black. The numbers simply weren’t on their side.
Campbell understood the stakes. And then his cousins started dying.
Even during a pandemic, the country tends to forget places like Sumter County. Two months into this disaster, just under 375 people have been tested for the coronavirus in Sumter, 87 of whom have tested positive.
“This public-health crisis has really illuminated inherent structural inequities and disinvestment in health infrastructure,” Representative Terri Sewell, a Democrat from Alabama whose district includes Sumter County, told me. “I’m most afraid that my Black Belt communities started on unequal footing and will just get left behind.”