by Margaret Mitchell, YWCA Greater Cleveland, President & CEO
Cleveland – April 21, 2020 – I’m not crying wolf, but simply telling the untarnished truth.
The intended consequences of our history have brought us here. The Black community has endured endless campaigns of slavery, exploitation, violence, mass incarceration, housing discrimination, and economic disinvestment. Recent reports reveal the COVID-19 pandemic plays out along racial lines, continuing to deprive communities of color of physical, mental, and emotional equity in this country. Michigan, Illinois, and Louisiana report staggering disparities, especially in COVID-19 related deaths. Here in Ohio, black residents make up about 13% of the population yet, represent 19% of the diagnosed cases of COVID-19 by recent reports. Data on whites shows no disproportionality.
Decisions about education, citizenship and voting rights, to land and property ownership, jurisdictions at all levels have influenced the distribution of advantage and disadvantage in American society. These abuses are not confined to the past. Restricted health care access and a documented bias in treatment, combined with environmental injustice, including lead poisoning and toxic stress have resulted in a population that disproportionately has a lower life expectancy rate and suffers from chronic conditions and the comorbidities that place my community 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.
Social determinants of health equity have an outsized influence on health outcomes. The racial disparities in COVID-19 infections and deaths are unacceptable. Our nation’s legacy of unjust treatment of human beings with darker skin, sustains structural racism and perpetuates racial disparities. We must act now 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:
- Insist COVID-19 hotlines collect more comprehensive data, requiring race and ethnicity data of cases to be recorded, and increase transparency of disparities when reporting out. Government should continue to release racial and ethnic breakdowns of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths by county, ZIP code and Census tract
- Disseminate important information specifically to the African American community through a multi-pronged mass media approach
- 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
- Require racial and ethnic identities be added to the list of prioritized testing qualifiers to better test and treat high-risk populations, including pregnant Black women and predominantly African American nursing homes
For YWCA Greater Cleveland, an organization committed to eliminating racism and empowering women, declaring racism a public health issue is the long- term policy response that must outlast this particular moment, redress the wrongs of the past, and shepherd us into a healthier, more equitable future.
A majority of Cleveland’s City Council recognized the impact of racism on public health months ago. Four hundred years of undeniable data brought them to that conclusion. Racism is a public health crisis—we don’t need any more proof. The City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County must make that declaration and codify meaningful change with an ordinance. COVID-19 has exposed our interconnected oppressive systems. It’s time we take responsibility for the truth and proactively work to create a more equitable community for those marginalized the most.