The rumor that fueled early COVID-19 myths: ‘Black people can’t get coronavirus’

COVID: Then and Now

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Last March, rumors churned almost as quickly as the coronavirus spread.

“There was so much that we did not know,” said Dr. Jen Caudle, a family physician and associate professor at Rowan University. “It was a very scary time.”

Caudle heard one COVID-19 rumor, in particular, that stood out to her. While at the hair salon, she heard someone say, “You know Black people can’t get coronavirus, right?”

“I was like, what?” she recalled.

Caudle regularly provides medical expertise on various outlets like “The Dr. Oz Show,” as well as produces her own videos on social media. After hearing that myth in the salon, she researched it — only to discover it had gone viral.

“It was insane,” she remembered. “The misinformation machine I have seen running rampant during COVID is nothing like I have ever seen.”

She started making daily videos attacking myths around the coronavirus.

“The rumor was if you’re African-American you are somehow immune to coronavirus,” added Jenice Armstrong, a Philadelphia-based columnist. She wrote an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer about the rumor in early March, and it quickly became the most-read article for the site.

“Black people were reading about it. White people were reading about it. Everybody wanted to know what was going on,” she said.

According to the myth, melanin kept Black people safe. But within days, reality hit: Two of the first high-profile Black people to announce they had COVID-19 were Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz. After that, DJ Jazzy Jeff and others shared their stories of testing positive.

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On March 8, 2020, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley further debunked the rumor during a press briefing: “There are some people (who say) there are some races that are not going to get this. This virus doesn’t discriminate.”

Unfortunately, Armstrong believes many people have died because of the effects of that rumor, directly or indirectly. Fast-forward a few months, and Black communities were ravaged by COVID-19 in Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia and more cities across the U.S.

Caudle wasn’t surprised.

“The idea of Black people getting the disease and being more likely to die from it fits right in with racial disparities we’ve known for years,” she said.

Black Americans have been more likely to get COVID-19 and to die from it than others. The disparities are caused by underlying conditions — close-quarter living conditions and underlying health problems — that many African-Americans suffer from.

On the other hand, the swirling disinformation within communities of color has prompted many people to step up — people like Armstrong, Caudle and Dr. Ala Stanford, who created the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium in Philadelphia to tackle disparities by providing access to testing in Black neighborhoods. Stanford’s effort is now focused on getting the vaccine to the underserved.

“We have certainly seen a lot of people step up,” Caudle added, “and I want that. It’s inspiring.”

Now, medical professionals, influencers and community leaders are working to battle rumors and misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine. Hesitancy among African-Americans was high early on, but as the rollout continues, more and more people of color are seeking immunization.

In Philadelphia, 4,000 people were immunized at a Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium 24-hour vax-a-thon, proving the desire to get the shot within communities is there.

“For the first time, I feel a sense of hope,” Caudle said.

COVID: Then and Now is a KYW Newsradio original monthlong series looking back at the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic in Philadelphia. Reporters revisit the news from exactly one year ago and examine how protocols, restrictions and science have evolved since then. Check back weekdays in March for more.