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Christmas in June.
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What we know about Covid-19’s impact on black Minnesotans
Zion Baptist Church Pastor Brain Herron helps pass out masks to Minneapolis residents during the Covid-19 pandemic. | Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty Images Black people make up a disproportionate share of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the state, but not deaths. While people protest the death of a black man at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer and a president with a history of inflaming racial tensions seemingly incites violence against those same protesters, black communities in Minnesota must also endure Covid-19. There, as elsewhere in the United States, the public health and economic crises are taking a harsher toll among minorities than the white majority. Across the country, black Americans are getting infected with the coronavirus and dying from it at disproportionate rates compared to their share of the population. The Covid-19 mortality rate among black Americans is 2.4 times higher than it is for white people. There is not a single explanation for that racial disparity, but many. Black Americans have historically struggled with their health compared to whites, a reflection of the US’s longstanding socioeconomic stratification by race, and black Americans have high rates of preexisting conditions that make patients more vulnerable to Covid-19. They are also more likely to work jobs that have been considered “essential” and cannot be done from home, which increases their risk of exposure to the virus. Spread among intergenerational households and exposure to air pollution could also help explain the high infection rates among black people. The point is, the disparities in Covid-19’s impact are in many ways the byproduct of America’s structural racism — just like the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and other black people who have died at the hands of white law enforcement officers or civilians. The escalation of the unrest in Minnesota, and President Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric against the protesters, is a reminder of how pervasive these problems remain. Even in a mostly white state like Minnesota, black people may pay the price for the racial disparities in public health. The breakdown of coronavirus cases in the state shows many of the same trends we have seen nationwide. Black people make up only 7 percent of the Minnesota population, but they account for 16 percent of the roughly 23,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases. However, black Minnesotans do not appear to be dying at a disproportionate rate from Covid-19, at least based on the available data. Those trends could be a mirage, reflecting reporting and testing limitations, and/or they might be partially explained by the demographics of the different races in the state. The average age of Minnesota’s white residents (over 40) is substantially older than that of its black residents (about 27 years old, according to public health experts I contacted). To put it another way, 24 percent of Minnesota’s white population is over 60 years old, while just 7 percent of the state’s black population is. (Minnesota has the biggest Somali population of any state, and that may help some of the age gap; the US-born population in the state skews older than migrants from African countries.) We know Covid-19 is more dangerous for older people, and most of Minnesota’s confirmed Covid-19 deaths have occurred in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities. So Minnesota may simply be lucky, in a sense, that the black residents who are getting infected happened to be younger and therefore less at risk of a fatal case. However, the experts I spoke with also warned it’s too early to draw firm conclusions about the fatality patterns between the races in Minnesota. A lot of recorded Covid-19 deaths don’t actually have racial markers attached to them. And biases in the testing may have contributed to an underreporting of black Covid-19 deaths in Minnesota. If you step back and look at all excess mortality — how many deaths have occurred in 2020 compared to what would be expected during a normal year — the data suggests black Minnesotans are dying at a disproportionately high rate compared to the historical averages. This inconsistent data reminds us that it is going to take a long time to suss out the precise impact of Covid-19 in Minnesota and across the country. “Given the incomplete testing and incomplete recording of Covid deaths as such, I think it’s too early for anyone to say definitively that black Minnesotans are less likely to die, given infection, than white Minnesotans, but that pattern certainly can arise from the age differences between different racial groups in Minnesota, which are extreme,” Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota who tracks Covid-19’s population health data, told me. Nonwhite Minnesotans are also experiencing more economic pain during the coronavirus crisis compared to the white population. Black, Hispanic, and multiracial residents of the state account for 17 percent of the unemployment claims filed in the state since March 2, a slightly disproportionate share. And it must be repeated that black Minnesotans who are still working are more likely to have high-exposure occupations. As A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez wrote for Vox this week, black families — and black mothers, in particular — are enduring compounding crises: the recent spate of police violence and the ongoing pandemic. And the resulting stress can be a health risk all its own. From her essay: When unmasked, we Black mothers fear our loved ones will suffer from the risks associated with complications from the disease. When masked, we fear the risks associated with complications of bias and racism. As Black mothers, we are living in an especially troublesome time — sandwiched between the current public health threat of Covid-19 and the longtime reality of police brutality. We are trapped in a double-bind of racism. While there’s an influx of “pandemic grief guides,” none are useful in teaching Black children that the virus is terrifying, but that racism is the public health crisis more likely to kill you. There are no instructions about where Black mothers are supposed to place their fears and sorrow. As Black mothers, grief is embedded in our being. It accumulates and manifests as body aches and pains. But many of us have never been taught how to deal with it so it doesn’t become yet another risk to our health. Recent studies have actually found the mothers of children who face discrimination report worse health over time than the mothers of children who do not. No crisis happens in isolation. The tragic events of the last week, and the disturbing disparities detected in the Covid-19 outbreak, are a reminder of how these separate challenges combine to harm the health of the people in America who already face structural disadvantages. There is, sadly, little sign those disparities are going to get better anytime soon. This story appears in VoxCare, a newsletter from Vox on the latest twists and turns in America’s health care debate. Sign up to get VoxCare in your inboxalong with more health care stats and news. Join the conversation Are you interested in more discussions around health care policy? Join our Facebook community for conversation and updates.
Colin Kaepernick will help provide legal assistance for Minneapolis protesters after death of George Floyd
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Why millions of Americans are getting coronavirus stimulus payments on scammy-looking debit cards
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images The federal government is sending out financial aid that looks like junk mail. They might look like a scam, but the white envelopes from an Omaha-based entity called “Money Network Cardholder Services” that many Americans received this week are surprisingly legit. Inside those envelopes, which are finally being delivered to millions of Americans, are Visa-branded debit cards loaded up with coronavirus stimulus payments from the federal government. “It’s honestly due to sheer luck that I decided to open them, because inside one was a notice that my federal stimulus money was being disbursed to me on an enclosed prepaid debit card,” Alanna Okun, a deputy editor at Vox’s The Goods, told Recode in a message. While she eventually activated the card and used it to purchase groceries, she said: “I am still nettled because nobody told me this was going to happen, and it just as easily could have ended up in the garbage.” Some people aren’t so lucky. An untold number of Americans, believing the envelopes are junk mail or the debit cards are a scam, are ignoring them or throwing them out. And it’s understandable why they would be cautious: Credit-card-related schemes have been on the rise since the pandemic began, according to the Wall Street Journal, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been busy warning people about stimulus payment-related scams. One person reported the official government debit cards to the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker. “The letter states this is our Economic Impact Payment card and has a Department of the Treasury seal on the letter,” reads the complaint. “This has to be a scam!” People have been calling their local officials, asking about whether the letter is a rip-off. Others have reached out to their local television stations. The North Carolina attorney general’s office told Recode it had received several calls from concerned constituents, including one from someone who had already thrown out their payment card. Some people have even reported the stimulus debit cards to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), though when asked about the issue, the agency said it would not provide additional information. Officials are now scrambling to spread the word to Americans that the debit cards are not, in fact, part of a scam. Hopefully, most of the millions of people meant to receive these cards get the message, but it seems likely that countless Americans will overlook or throw out those scammy-looking envelopes purporting to be from the federal government. They could also lose the coronavirus stimulus payments to which they are entitled. It’s not clear why these problematic debit cards were needed The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced the first round of Economic Impact Payments being deposited in people’s bank accounts on April 11, leading to a storm of confusion over whether people should expect a direct deposit or wait for a paper check. Some six weeks after those first payments were disbursed, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced that close to 4 million Americans would not receive either direct deposit or a check. Instead, they would get their economic impact payments through prepaid Visa debit cards. While 4 million sounds like a lot, those Americans receiving debit cards in the mail represent a small sliver of the total population receiving payments. The Treasury Department says it has already sent more than 140 million payments. The department also explained in a press release that people receiving prepaid debit cards would be those “without bank information on file with the IRS, and whose tax return was processed by either the Andover or Austin IRS Service Center.” It’s unclear what makes these centers exceptional, but if you’re from Massachusetts or Texas, pay extra-close attention to your mail. At a press conference, Mnuchin said that the debit cards were an effort to “expedite money to people even quicker in a very safe way.” He also hinted that debit cards could be used in the future, saying, “Going forward, we think debit cards are a safe and secure way of delivering refunds.” To debut the new cards, the government built a website — — that says the debit card will arrive in a plain envelope from “Money Network Cardholder Services,” and would include “Visa” on the front and the name of the issuing bank, “MetaBank,” on the back. (MetaBank is a bank that the Treasury Department has used since 2016 to send people payments from federal agencies.) The site explains that to activate the card, recipients need to call an 800 number and confirm their identity with their address, name, and the last six digits of their Social Security number. There are also links to the cardholder agreement and a fee schedule. The Economic Impact Payment (EIP) card itself features a generic-looking image of blue fabric with white stars, like an American flag. As with pretty much any debit card, there are some fees associated with using the EIP card. The first out-of-network ATM withdrawal, for instance, is free, but each subsequent withdrawal comes with a $2 fee. If you do a balance inquiry at an ATM, that carries an additional 25 cent fee, either in or out of network. A replacement card if it’s lost or stolen costs $7.50. Priority shipping for the replacement card costs an additional $17. Still, there’s something suspicious-seeming about all of this. The website is branded as a “Money Network” site, and it’s only further down the page that it says, “The EIP Card is sponsored by the Treasury Department’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service as part of the US Debit Card Program.” It doesn’t seem like this has been enough to clear up the confusion. On Wednesday, the IRS released a statement emphasizing that the agency “reminds” people about how the prepaid debit cards would arrive, while still warning people to be wary of scams. “I don’t think that there’s any true explanation as to why they’re going out as a debit card,” Brian Streig, an accountant based in Austin, said of these stimulus payments. “I think that’s what the biggest confusion is.” Streig added that he realized the perception problem seemed to be widespread after one of his neighbors posted in a community Yahoo group about whether the cards were legitimate. There have been other issues, too. Some people have tried to transfer all the stimulus money into their traditional bank accounts, only to run into problems with the online system. For some households, the card might have combined two names on it, but only the person with the first name can activate it, which is what happened to one couple who spoke with Yahoo News. Others have complained that their names have been misspelled, making them hesitant to share their Social Security number on the EIP card website. Others have complained that using the MetaBank system is cumbersome, or that they need to transfer the money off the card to their bank accounts in increments. And what about the people who already destroyed or trashed their cards? Well, there’s a $7.50 fee to replace it and that additional $17 fee if they want the replacement mailed back quickly. That assumes that this person even realized that a prepaid debit card loaded with hundreds or thousands of dollars of aid from the federal government had even arrived in the first place. The government really screwed this one up It seems as though the federal government’s communication strategy around the existence of the EIP cards and the delivery of the cards themselves have been a disaster. A slew of elected officials, from attorneys general to state representatives, have now posted online urging people not to throw out the plain white envelope containing a relatively unmarked debit card loaded with the coronavirus stimulus payment. They’re urging people to more dutifully inspect their mail, lest they don’t get the aid at all. However, the letter inside does indicate that the debit card is from the Treasury Department. One also has to wonder why so many people would assume that this was a scam — so much so that they were being reported to federal officials. It certainly seems like the messaging around public awareness of these debit cards could have been better. “There’s a big to-do about putting the president’s note on the check,” Streig explained. “So everybody started associating this, these payments, with a check if it wasn’t going to be direct deposited.” But then debit cards began to be sent out, he said, with “no fanfare, no kind of big announcement.” It’s not as though the government hasn’t put effort into making people aware of how they would receive their coronavirus stimulus payments. In fact, the Social Security Administration made a $13 million contract with Crosby Marketing, a DC-area public relations firm, to increase public awareness of the Economic Impact Payment system and how to access the payments. A spokesperson for the agency told Recode that the outreach campaign funded by that contract was completed before the debit cards were made available to the public. They also said that questions related to the debit cards should be directed to the IRS. Recode sent the Treasury Department several questions about the communication around these debit cards and never heard back. Ironically, the federal government’s latest messaging that urged people to take the EIP card seriously might have made it easier for new scams to appear. Now that more people are eagerly expecting a debit card from the government, some worry that actual scammers will attempt to spoof the card or the website in some way. Streig notes that the EIP website is fairly simple and therefore easy to impersonate. “I think my mom, if she got one in the mail now,” Streig wondered, “she would just assume it was a stimulus card, not a fake one, because now it’s in the news.” So how much did the federal government screw this one up? “I don’t think we could have done much worse of a job,” Streig said. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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