By the time the coronavirus had swept the world, it had earned comparisons to multiple viruses, such as preceding upper respiratory infections like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). The ultimate classification of COVID-19 as a pandemic from the World Health Organization (WHO) even drew comparisons to the highly stigmatized HIV virus that surged in 1981.

Now, iconic professional basketball player and longtime HIV/AIDS advocate Magic Johnson is discussing existing similarities between the HIV and coronavirus — namely its disproportionate effect on people of color. 

Speaking on CNN to Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta — a doctor and medical writer — Johnson acknowledged the misinformation regarding which demographics can contract the coronavirus. He said that data points toward African Americans “leading” in both fatalities and hospitalizations related to the coronavirus. 

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“We must now, in the black community, educate ourselves better,” he explained. “We got to do a better job as African Americans to social distancing, stay at home, make sure we educate our loved ones and family members about this virus, and do what we’re supposed to do to keep safe and healthy.”

The NBA superstar highlights that the idea that African Americans aren’t a population susceptible to the virus needs to change. He said that the feeling mirrors how he felt regarding HIV/AIDS. 

"When I announced, it was considered a white, gay man’s disease," Johnson said. "People were wrong. Black people didn’t think they could get HIV and AIDS." 

The attitude surrounding the coronavirus’s prevalence in communities of color is similar, Johnson says.

"Blacks thought they couldn't get HIV and AIDS. It's the same thing as the coronavirus. It reminds me going back 30 years, we were all wrong," he told CNN.  

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In addition to education, Johnson attributes his success living with HIV — now classified as a chronic condition — to early detection and medication. 

But Johnson notes that, especially for combating the coronavirus, many African American communities need wider — and better — access to medical care and testing. He also pointed out that a disproportionate number of African Americans suffer from illnesses including diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted early on that individuals with these preexisting conditions are particularly susceptible to severe coronavirus infections. 

Gupta adds that African Americans are also more likely to have jobs in industries like food services and transportation, placing them at greater risk for contracting the virus through human-to-human contact.

While data breaking down the racial demographics of coronavirus fatalities is largely incomplete, Chicago was one of the first cities to release available statistics. Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) said that black Americans account for approximately 68 percent of the city’s total 118 deaths and 52 percent of the confirmed case number. 

For Johnson, the solution comes down to a combination of testing and awareness. 

“We got to make sure first that every American can get tested,” he said, noting that the primary reason he is alive and healthy today is due to early detection tests. He also underscored the need for education confirming that minorities can contract the virus as well.

In our community, we got to do a better job of making sure everybody knows that they can get this virus,” Johnson said. “And it's deadly.”


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Published on Apr 10, 2020