Black communities deserve health equity during COVID crisis

Kristen Clarke
Kristen Clarke

 

By KRISTEN CLARKE

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

 

In 1966, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman.” Dr. King’s words ring true today. All across the country, Black communities are reeling from the devastating impact that the pandemic is having on our communities. The pandemic has also exposed the ways in which racism and systemic discrimination have left Black communities more vulnerable to coronavirus and its impacts.

Data revealed from pockets of the country have made clear that the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on Black Americans. The Trump administration’s lack of transparency and failure to release racial data on a national level has undermined efforts to develop a targeted response to the crisis. As a result, too many of our communities are left without fair and equitable access to testing, care and treatment.

The few states and cities across the country that are publishing data are providing doctors and medical professionals with the critical information needed to help ensure that we are reaching the most vulnerable and high-risk communities. In other states, doctors are virtually shooting in the dark.

Easter-weekend data on COVID-19 provides a harrowing picture of the pandemic’s impact on Black Americans and makes clear that African Americans are dying at higher rates than Whites. In Illinois, African Americans make up 14.6% of the population, but 43% of deaths.  Similarly, Michigan’s population is 14% Black, but African Americans make up 43% of deaths. In South Carolina, African Americans make up 27% of the population but 38% of deaths. And in Louisiana, Blacks make up 33% of the population but 71% of deaths. If the CDC did its job and released data for the entire country, we could begin to strategically target and deploy resources to these hot spots across the country.

Why are our communities suffering more?

The earliest days of the pandemic were ones in which we saw very little testing and the few testing options that were available were seemingly reserved for the well connected and the privileged. Systemic racism and discrimination across our health care system has also left far too many African Americans beleaguered with pre-existing conditions that rendered them more vulnerable to coronavirus-related complications and deaths. Provider bias meant that some Black Americans were prematurely turned away at the hospital door or denied access to equitable treatment.  Far too many African Americans have lost their jobs or been furloughed and are currently without access to health insurance. And a disproportionate number of people of color find themselves in jobs deemed “essential,” including postal workers, public transit employees, sanitation workers, back-of-the-house restaurant cooks, home care assistant and delivery workers who subject themselves to higher risk reporting to work every day.

We also can’t ignore the false disinformation campaigns on social media that suggested that African Americans were immune to the disease. Our online platforms must do their part to ensure that these dangerous campaigns are immediately shut down.

And while the CDC has encouraged all people to wear masks in public, for African American men and boys who are too often subject to racial profiling and police violence, the choice to wear a mask brings with it significant risk.

Now is the time to fight back. My organization, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, has partnered with hundreds of doctors and health care professionals to fight for the Trump administration to immediately release national-level racial data. This data is a critical tool in the fight to ensure a strategically targeted response to the pandemic. That data can also help inform time-sensitive advocacy efforts to push more employers to grant paid leave that can literally help save lives. We are also calling for more states to begin releasing this data at the state-level as well. Every day that the administration fails to release this data may hamper lives.

We are also taking action to address overcrowded jails and prisons, which are very vulnerable to rapid spread of the virus.

This season demands that we collectively leverage our voices to call for justice, equity and action to advance the shared goal of beating back this pandemic. We should heed Dr. King’s calls and begin to push our leaders to address the “shocking and inhuman” disparities that have left African Americans particularly vulnerable during the current pandemic. We should view COVID-19 through a racial justice lens and demand equal access to health care as a critical civil and human right.

 

Kristen Clarke is president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the nation’s leading non-partisan civil rights law firm. Follow her on Twitter at @KristenClarkeJD

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