Denver's stay-at-home order over COVID-19 ends at midnight. But Brother Jeff Fard, an activist and namesake of Brother Jeff's Cultural Center in Five Points, is encouraging members of the Mile High City's black community to continue sheltering in place for another thirty days, if not longer, because of assorted inequities that increase their risk from the novel coronavirus.
"Folks are now saying black folks are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, but it's not followed up by looking at what we should be doing as the black community," notes Brother Jeff, whose publication, 5 Star News, is available at his website; he also hosts daily live shows on his Facebook page. "But now we're going back to work because the economy has suffered — and black folks should not be the test pilots to go back. If they can, I'm recommending that they don't go back into public until the first of June or the middle of June — or that they stay in as long as they can."
During a recent press conference, Governor Jared Polis marked two months since the first reported COVID-19 case in Colorado by suggesting that the designation of the initial individual as Patient Zero was almost certainly inaccurate, because experts believe the virus had been circulating through the state for some time before it was confirmed. Brother Jeff agrees, based on multiple tragic observations.
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"There was something peculiar happening before we heard the name COVID-19," he says. "Individuals in our community who were relatively healthy were suddenly being hospitalized. I started seeing GoFundMe pages about people on ventilators — all of the images we now associate with COVID. When the numbers were as low as twenty, we already knew of five or six people who had the same symptoms. That alerted me that as this progressed and began to get worse and more pronounced, black people were going to be the hardest hit — and that absolutely came to be the case."
Brother Jeff sees a corollary between the pandemic and the black community's reaction to the early rise of HIV. "They said it only happened to Haitians and hemophiliacs and homosexuals — and they were touting the idea that black folks couldn't get it," he recalls. "And there was a parallel early on, when black folks were celebrating that they couldn't get COVID. We were hearing people say, 'It's not impacting Africa. That's something taking place with Europe and Europeans, and black folks can't get it.' But then we were having folks getting sick and being hospitalized, and then we were having funerals where people, young or old, had died, and no one would mention how. It was kind of mysterious."
Although people woke up to the dangers of COVID-19 much earlier, not enough has changed in recent weeks, Brother Jeff believes: "We're seeing some folks being tested and passing away due to COVID, but there are many more who have not been diagnosed or tested, and they have the same symptoms."
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An exception was Reverend Terrence “Big T” Hughes, a community icon who's deeply involved with the cultural center. Hughes was recently released from the hospital after a two-month battle with the virus, and Brother Jeff praises the care he received at the Rocky Mountain VA Medical Center. But for many others in the black community, this level of support is the exception rather than the rule, he contends — and as a result, the outcomes for many haven't been nearly as positive.
"There are very few African-Americans who don't know someone in their family that's been impacted by COVID," he says. "That tells me the numbers in our community are a lot higher than they should be," based on their percentage of Denver's population.
Unfortunately, many black residents of Denver don't have the option of remaining off the job for an extended period of time — and their employment often puts them at greater danger of infection. "If you go into a local grocery store right now and look behind the counter, you'll probably see a young black person working there," he notes. "There are always populations seen as dispensable, and if you're black and you're poor, you've got to be outside doing those jobs that people can't do remotely. They don't have the luxury of not being in the economy. It's the difference between being housed and unhoused, of prescriptions filled and unfilled."
Still, if Denver's black residents can extend their own stays at home, Brother Jeff urges them to do so. "We're wholly committed to working collectively with everyone in all communities around this COVID situation," he says. "But it's important to know that the African-American community is being deeply and disproportionately impacted."