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'COVID-19 Is Even Deadlier If You’re Black, And I Want To Change That'

About a month ago, one of my relatives contracted novel virus and survived. One of my dearest friends also got COVID-19, and they did not. It was devastating.

I wish I could say that I’m surprised to personally know two people who were infected with the virus, but sadly, I’m not. I’m an African American woman, and people of color are disproportionately affected by this pandemic, with both higher contraction rates and higher death rates.

Take Milwaukee, for example, where 73 percent of people who die from the novel coronavirus are African American, yet African American people only make up 26 percent of the population. That isn’t just random. Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the United States, and our healthcare system has failed to serve an underserved community that needs more support, not less.

In the United States, we have a healthcare system that has historically failed to adequately serve people of color. The novel coronavirus pandemic is uncovering many of the systemic failures in our healthcare system that have persisted for generations.

I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, with a father who was a physician—so I saw racial disparities in health early on.

Many of his patients were black women on Medicaid and Medicare who suffered from many of the chronic health conditions that are still persistent in our community, like obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. (Of course, these are the very health issues that put people at greater risk of complications from COVID-19, too.)

I remember talking with him at the dinner table about the challenges his patients faced in receiving proper healthcare. When I began helping him in the office, I noticed that the majority of his patients were grappling with stress and anxiety, which is known to contribute to and exacerbate these health conditions. This made sense: They lived in high-stress environments with poor housing, exposure to mold and environmental toxins like lead, and neighborhood violence.

You can hardly talk to any African American person in this country whose family is not in some way touched by these health challenges. Either we are personally affected by them, or someone close to us is.

Many of us are trying to reverse the disparate outcomes, but it’s not a problem we alone can solve as individuals. For example, if you live in a food desert with no access to a grocery store, then it becomes challenging for you to access affordable, nutritious food.

From my childhood in Atlanta and throughout the course of my career, I have always strived to find solutions and push forward policies that deal with systemic challenges. Whether that’s helping people who live in food deserts or healthcare deserts, I have focused my energies on lifting people up to help them live healthier lives.

One thing is clear: We can’t blame people in underserved communities for their circumstances when you consider the history of discriminatory practices and racism, including in healthcare, that have plagued our country. My goal is to shed light on the fact that these health disparities are a result of forces beyond an individual’s control—and that’s not okay.

Similar problems plague maternal health, which is an issue I’ve been working to shed light on throughout my career, particularly since I became the president and CEO of March of Dimes, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the health of mothers and babies in the United States.

Courtesy of Stacey D. Stewart

Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes (most of which are preventable) compared to white women. For black women with a college degree, the mortality rate is over five times higher compared to white women with the same education, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

Our history also shows us that we can go to extra lengths to better serve communities of color, and that doing so benefits us all.

One of the reasons why I’m so proud to lead the March of Dimes is that our organization worked to better serve people of color when it was first founded in 1937.

When the polio epidemic struck the United States in the 1920s and ’30s, it was somewhat similar to what we’re experiencing now with COVID-19: No one knew how the virus spread, and it could lead to terrifying complications including paralysis and death. As a result, there were closures of schools, movie theaters, and other public gathering spaces.

Although our country was segregated at the time, President Roosevelt and the March of Dimes organization believed that no one should be left behind in the search for a cure for polio. As such, they ensured that African American children were included in clinical trials for the polio vaccine and provided a rehabilitation clinic for people of color as well.

Now, because communities of color are at an even greater risk of catching and dying from the novel coronavirus, we have to do even more to ensure we’re included in finding a solution.

For one, we need to be much more intentional in how we attack these racial health disparities. Some states, like Michigan and Louisiana, are collecting data to study the disparate impacts of the novel coronavirus on communities of color. However, this is not yet mandated for all states.

If we’re going to authentically address this issue, we can’t hide from the truth. We have to collect all of this information and publicly release it.

It’s our responsibility to make sure that if we do ever go through a pandemic like this again, we’re be better prepared to address the needs of all of our communities, especially those most in need.

I have two daughters, and as young black women, they’re very aware of the realities of racial health disparities. But with this knowledge, they’re also empowered to create change (lately, one of my daughters has been especially interested in public health—I wonder why!).

Ultimately, they motivate me. Even though our public health system has consistently failed people of color, we do have the ability to effect change. We can advocate for a healthcare system that meets our needs and hold our public officials accountable for creating it.

As difficult and traumatic as an experience this is, I think we’ve been presented with a powerful opportunity. One day we will emerge from this pandemic, and I hope it will be with a stronger, better healthcare system that truly is the best in the world. I know that our young people will lead us toward the change we need to see in the future, a change that will benefit them and their children.

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