Nearly every American knows who George Floyd was and how he died. Tens of thousands around the country took to the streets to protest his May 25 killing by a Minneapolis police officer. Just a month after his death, the US House of Representatives passed a major police reform bill—normally a process that would take years.
If George Floyd has become a household name, almost nobody knows who Angeline Bernadel was or how she died. A native of Haiti, she was a licensed practical nurse who worked at West River Healthcare Center in Milford CT. She was 52 and died of covid-19 on April 4.
Nor do they know who Arlene Chesley was. She was 78, a retired cosmetologist and special education teacher, and a resident of Sagepoint Senior Living in Charles County MD. She died of covid-19 on May 6, one of more than 30 residents killed by the pandemic.
Like George Floyd, Angeline Bernadel and Arlene Chesley were Black.
That matters, because people of color are far more likely to be sickened and die from COVID-19 than whites. The racial disparities are stunning: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Hispanics are four times more likely to be hospitalized from covid-19 than whites. Blacks are 4.5 times more likely, and native Americans five times more likely.
It is a similar story in nursing homes. University of Chicago professor of public health professor Tamara Konetzka found that nursing homes with the highest percentage of non-white residents are more than twice as likely to have covid-19 cases and deaths as those with the lowest share. A collaborative journalistic study reached essentially the same conclusion.
And while deaths of George Floyd and others created a sense of outrage and opened a national conversation about policing and race, the deaths of Angline Bernadel, Arlene Chesley, and so many others who lived or worked in long-term care facilities mostly have created….silence.
Covid-19 isn’t just a story about race. The toll of covid-19 related deaths is ravaging many populations. More than 70,000 whites have died in the US, also disproportionately residents of long-term care facilities. While data are incomplete and inconsistent, roughly 40 percent of all US covid-19 deaths—more than 50,000 people—were residents of long-term care facilities. Still an outsized share were people of color.
Why the silence?
Yet, there is no national conversation.
No widespread protests. And few public officials, editorial writers, or academics are calling for a bottoms- up redesign of our system of long-term care. That may be why, despite a smattering of congressional hearings, there has been no legislative action to reform our system of supports and services for frail older adults and younger people with disabilities.
Instead, we hear about temporary fixes and pleas for more money. The nursing home industry is asking government for funds for staff, personal protective equipment, and testing. Advocates for older adults want more money for Medicaid long-term services and supports and more nursing home regulation.
From one end of the US to the other, people are debating ways to fundamentally remake our system of criminal justice and policing. But when it comes to long-term care, we do little more than argue over who gets the teacup to bail out the sinking ship.
Videos and ageism
I can’t help but wonder why so many are silent about long-term care reform when they are so vocal about police reform.
In part, it may be because George Floyd’s death was captured on a cell phone, to be replayed countless times. There is no video of the deaths of Angeline Bernadel or Arlene Chesley.
It may also be ageism. George Floyd was 46. Ahmaud Aubrey, the jogger shot by two white men outside of Brunswick GA on Feb 23, was just 25. By contrast, Arlene Chesley was 78 and had suffered a stroke years before. Do people think her life was somehow less valuable, and her death less worthy of concern, because, well, because she was more likely to die soon anyway?
And Angeline Bernadel? She was an LPN in a nursing home. She was the kind of direct care worker who is underpaid and too-often treated as an easily replaceable cog in the long-term care machine. Who notices care workers like her, even when they are changing adult diapers or—in pre-COVID-19 days, giving residents or family members a much-needed hug? Aides and LPNs in fact are indispensable. But we don’t treat them that way.
We need to have a national conversation about race in the US. But not just about policing. Part of that conversation ought to include long-term care.