Saturday, December 2, 2023

COVID-19: ‘The equalizer’ highlights our inequities. Racism should be declared a public health crisis.

From Lisa McDuffie, President/CEO YWCA Northwest Ohio

Throughout our history, the United States has repeatedly disenfranchised and silenced communities of color. Marginalized communities have endured endless campaigns of exploitation, violence, mass incarceration, housing discrimination, and economic disinvestment. Recent reports are showing how the COVID-19 pandemic plays out along racial lines, continuing to deprive communities of color of physical, mental, and emotional safety in this country. Here in Ohio, black residents make up about 13% of the population yet, as of April 13, represent 19% of the diagnosed cases of COVID-19. Other states like Michigan, Illinois, and Louisiana have reported even more staggering disparities, especially in COVID-19 related deaths.

Through decisions about citizenship and voting rights, to land and property ownership, jurisdictions at all levels have influenced distribution of advantage and disadvantage in American society. For example, the HISTORY of restricted health care access and a documented bias in treatment, medical abuse like the Tuskegee Institute study and higher rates of environmental stressors, have resulted in a population that disproportionately suffers from chronic conditions and the comorbidities that place them at higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19.

For all of the guidance that has been released in the name of slowing the spread of COVID-19, at the outset, it was never acknowledged that a majority of these action steps reflect privilege. The ability to protect oneself and adhere to the guidance by public health officials is a reach for many concentrated in economically vulnerable neighborhoods. Nutrient dense food is limited; the income to hoard food and supplies is limited; and for housing insecure households, those with limited internet access, or those without the healthcare centers or other important information distribution organizations (such as libraries), access to appropriate information is limited. 

Now, we must move beyond merely calling out these inequities. It is well-known in the public health field that social determinants of health have an outsized influence on health outcomes.  For YWCA of Northwest Ohio, an organization committed to eliminating racism and empowering women, we believe that as a community, we must see with renewed conviction why declaring racism as a public health issue is the long- term policy response that can outlast this particular moment, redress the wrongs of the past, and shepherd us into a healthier, more equitable future. 

Because our nation’s legacy of discrimination and preserved structural racism perpetuates racial disparities, actions must be targeted to address the specific needs of communities of color as we fight to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Here are a few things we can do to help:

  • Submit requests for COVID-19 hotlines to collect more comprehensive data, requiring race and ethnicity data of cases to be recorded, and increase transparency of disparities when reporting out. Government should release racial and ethnic breakdowns of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths by county, ZIP code and Census tract.
  • Advocate for equitable access to testing and treatment, such as locating testing centers in predominantly black neighborhoods, or providing free, safe transportation to and from testing and treatment, and access to community-based primary care physicians.
  • Add racial and ethnic identities to the list of prioritized testing qualifiers to better test and treat high-risk populations and provide free health care for those who test positive.
  • Request that high-volume subsidized housing buildings work with local health providers to disseminate important information to residents and create onsite clinic hours to ensure mobility-restricted residents have access to medical care.
  • Acknowledge and commend our health systems role with social determinants to health. After all, we have the national leaders in our community. Let’s walk along side of them as WE confront these issues.

We believe the racial disparities in COVID-19 infections and deaths are unacceptable. We invite our community’s leadership to a conversation to declare racism as a public health crisis, accept responsibility for the government’s role in creating oppressive systems that marginalize Black and Brown Americans, and proactively work to create a more equitable community for all our residents.


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