Pandemic exposes deadly impact of disparities—now what?

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Part 4 of a continuing story

The national NAACP is holding virtual town hall meetings throughout the month of April to discuss the health, economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the nation’s Black communities. In addition to providing excerpts from these meetings as they occur over the coming weeks, the MSR also is talking to others both locally and nationally about the impact the coronavirus outbreak is having or may have on our local Black community. This week: Where to go from here.

The NAACP is strongly advocating an action plan to address the historical social, educational, economic and health inequities that have affected the Black community, which has been at the epicenter of this country’s coronavirus crisis. They held four virtual town hall meetings on the virus last month, and a weekly average of 20,000 people participated in the events.

Originally billed as a discussion on creating a post-COVID action plan, the NAACP weekly meetings mostly consisted of talking points rather than offering any concrete solutions. “It will take months and years to truly understand the impact” of the virus, said Dr. Patrice Harris of the American Medical Association.

“The COVID-19 is shining a bright light on many preexisting conditions on health and inequity” on the Black community and communities of color, she added.  “Now we have COVID on top of that.”

A new University of Minnesota study released last week said that the pandemic could last at least two years and recommends that the U.S. prepare for a worst-case scenario. The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy surmised that COVID appears to spread more easily than the flu because of a large incubation period, and it can spread more among people who have no symptoms.

The study concludes that the virus won’t be halted until 60-70 percent of the world’s population is immune. It could take 12 to 18 months to test a vaccine, then manufacture and distribute it.

All invited panelists—national lawmakers, doctors, celebrities and others—agree that the virus outbreak didn’t create the country’s longstanding disparities. Unfortunately, it did bring them to light in deadly fashion—Blacks have to date accounted for over a third of all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.   

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) noted that the current health crisis “puts into glaring focus the racial disparities that the NAACP has been pointing out for generations. We have to take the hard, horrible lessons…and make sure we change our policies going forward.” 

 “This is a very serious time…because of the urgency of the matter,” said journalist April Ryan, who moderated the NAACP’s final town hall April 28.

“It is our job to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson stressed. 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo pointed out, “The African American community has shouldered an unbelievable burden throughout this crisis. Let’s use this moment to expose the chronic injustice faced by African Americans and solve it.”

“This virus is holding up a mirror to our society and reminding [us] of the deep inequalities,” Michigan Gov. Grecthen Whithier said. “COVID-19 doesn’t recognize state lines, party lines or color lines, although it has affected the African American community at more significant numbers.”

Some also have suggested that the stay-home orders imposed since late March favor the more privileged as well, shining a light on this country’s class and race divide. Many non-white-collar workers and other low-income folk already living check-to-check suddenly are unemployed. The U.S. Labor Department reports that at least 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said last week, after expanding the state’s stay-home orders for another two weeks, that the burdens “are falling heavily on communities of color and socially disadvantaged communities.”  

As we presumably move forward toward a post-COVID America, will genuine long-term equity solutions for Blacks and other communities of color emerge? If so, when and how will they take shape? Which disparity will be addressed first? Who will design, administer, oversee and fund such solutions?   

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms declared, “Some call this the ‘new normal,’ but [it is] the now normal.”

“We are not aware if this will become business as usual once this emergency ends,” said Minneapolis-based Voices for Racial Justice’s Brent Grant. “It’s highly unlikely that this crisis, this emergency, will be the trigger to move us forward beyond those racial disparities.

“There is still an unwillingness to acknowledge how central racism is to what is happening in the Black community. I think in order for us to move forward, it needs to be that acknowledgement,” Grant said.

All disparity issues, including mass incarceration, housing and poverty that impact communities of color, must be examined, urged Drexel University Public Health Professor Sharrelle Barber. “My hope is that this wakes us up enough. We can’t keep allowing whole segments of the population to go without.

“We got to really radically and totally restructure society and how we do things. It is literally a matter of life and death,” Barber said in an MSR phone interview last month.

“There is a conversation needed about how we need to expand the safety net in this country,” Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist III advised. “We need to talk and think about how we can expand access to health care, unemployment, food assistance, and other forms of income.

“This pandemic for many people has made it clear that we need to have more support for people.”

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