An intriguing conclusion offered by Harvard public health professor David Williams: “Your zip code is a better predictor of how long and how well you will live than your genetic code.”
Somehow, it was divined that I read Williams’ article while perched on my hilltop splendor in zip code 83857. The pine-scented air, my satisfied belly, and the sounds of my children frolicking down by the pond, all were not lost on me. Then someone puts some words to paper that cut through, that help you snap out of whatever hallucination was keeping you preoccupied.
I eased further back into my Adirondack chair – made of recycled resins please note, and pondered zip codes in faraway lands: 60623 in Chicago where 70 percent of COVID-19-related deaths are African Americans in a city that is 29 percent black. Or the environs of 48205 Detroit where eight out of 10 deaths are (former) residents of impoverished neighborhoods. Blacks make up 33 percent of the state of Louisiana and more than 70 percent of virus-related deaths.
Sure, there’s a pattern to the numbers, but as far as I can recollect, Darwin’s theory of natural selection did not consider socioeconomic status. But then again, public health research has come a long way since Darwin’s day. As Martin Luther King said, “Of all of the disparities created by inequities in our society, health care may be the most inhumane.”
While the hills are alive in 83857 and the birds are chirping to the musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein, I’m loathe to interrupt my enjoyment of their harmonies in order to think about zip codes 70126 and 70436 in New Orleans. There, COVID-19 is their most recent “Hurricane Katrina.” I don’t want to see those images again: family members cradling one another on rooftops trying to balance themselves while signaling for help. I’d prefer the expedient fable and blame them for not making the right life choices, for not complying with recommended social distancing protocol.
Now I’ve done it: I’ve bumped into the inescapable discomfort of free choice. If longevity and quality of life are correlated to zip code, then – gosh darnit – invoke your hard-won freedoms, go right ahead and dig up your grubstake and mosey on over to another zip code.
One like mine perhaps, where there are aisles full of fresh organic produce; where you can earn high wages consulting from your laptop computer – while reclining in your Adirondack chair; where your personal physician returns your phone call to ask about your symptoms; and where Julie Andrews will sing “My Favorite Things” in the key of your choice.
COVID-19’s fondness for particular zip codes is not front and center in our national conversation – and for good reason: those who hold the “talking stick” cherish and protect their biases about the origins of the poor, biases that routinely run counter to public health research (not the kind of research they would care to fund). Oh, and there’s the need to keep the lid on America’s historical moral stench.
Give Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker due credit for speaking off-script when he said, “Communities of color — and particularly black communities … disproportionately shoulder the health care conditions that lead to worse outcomes with COVID-19,” and went on to lift the moral lid, if only slightly, “that’s a product of generations of systemic disinvestment in communities of color, compounded by disparities in health care delivery systems and access.”
Just as COVID-19 has the power over life, it as well has the power to open doors to the necessary conversations: what it means to live in poverty, especially when surrounded by zip codes that don’t care to know.
After years of globetrotting, Todd J. Broadman finds himself writing from his perch on the Palouse and loving the view. His policy briefs can be found at US Resist News: https://www.usresistnews.org/