Blog by Alliance Impact Directors – Michelle Hinton, director of population health and well-being; Undraye Howard, senior director of equity, diversity, and inclusion and engagement; and Jennifer Jones, director of the Change in Mind Institute at the Alliance

Since COVID-19 hit the United States, so many families, communities, and organizations have come together to support each other and share the universal message that we are all in this together.  But the reality is, our African American neighbors are being disproportionately impacted by this virus.

Inequities that are experienced through lack of access and opportunity have existed in our country for hundreds of years and have always disproportionately impacted people of color. Quality housing, education, clean air and water, safe neighborhoods, access to health and mental health, and affordable and nutritious food are just a few examples of the social and environmental determinants of health that we know are essential for each of us reaching our full potential. Sadly, many of these things are glaringly absent in the neighborhoods of color and make significant contributions to health inequities in our nation.   

While all of us strive to be resilient, we now know through advancing neurosciences, the physical and psychological impacts of constant stress levels that become toxic through too much cortisol productions. Our neighbors of color are more likely to experience systemic inequities, such as racism, poverty and violence. Brain science has shown us that years of stress can contribute to negative physical and behavioral health outcomes, which can manifest in chronic conditions and autoimmune disorders. Additionally, adverse childhood experiences are more common among people of color and these when compounded with the constant experience of subtle and explicit discrimination, create an even greater risk for chronic disease.  

The first month of COVID-19 statistics, released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reported that 1 in 3 people who became sick enough to require hospitalization were African Americans. This compared to the fact that African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population. Whites who make up 76% of the U.S. population made up 45% of hospitalizations because of Coronavirus. U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams stated that “the chronic burden of medical ills is likely to make people of color, especially less resilient to the ravages of COVID-19.” The reports of African American’s persistent lack of access to testing, higher chronic disease burden, and historical racial bias within health care institutions are contributing to the higher rates of death. In fact, in cities across the U.S., like Chicago and Milwaukee more than 70% of the deaths are African American. Added to this is the substandard care African Americans and persons of color typically experience because of the lack of adequate health care facilities and providers within their communities.

The socioeconomic ladder further highlights the disparities and inequities persons of color experience as a result of the coronavirus. Because of nationwide “stay-at-home” orders, the service industry, including hospitality, restaurants, and retail, many of which employ people of color have experienced massive layoffs and terminations furthering deepening economic disruptions for these individuals and families. Even though African Americans and Hispanics make up nearly 25% of the service industry compared to 16% of Whites, persons of color have experienced higher unemployment rates, and are more likely to absorb the negative economic impact this pandemic will have on their households. In addition, housing situations add even more risk to persons of color who typically reside in metro areas with higher population density, as compared to Whites. Given the rapid spread of the virus in highly populated areas, people of color are at higher risk of being exposed and infected because of crowded living conditions where maintaining six feet is a luxury.

If we are truly going to create and be the change our nation so desperately needs to ensure all people have access and opportunity so they too can thrive in America regardless of race or socioeconomic status, we must seize the opportunity in front of us now with the same urgency we have taken to address this global pandemic. If we are going to reduce inequities in health outcomes, we must focus on preventing and mitigating adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and addressing the daily contexts in which people live. Each of us can do our part by first starting with love and empathy for one another and then committing to making this nation a better place to live for everyone. Put simply, we all do well when we all do well. We are now watching our country come together to fight this pandemic that knows no boundaries of influence. We have seen our country come together in times past to seize opportunities to make necessary change. The question is will we emerge from this pandemic with a greater understanding of our interdependence on one another and the need for us to have open, candid and solution policy-oriented conversations that will once and for all ensure all people in our nation can live their lives to their fullest potential with health and wellness. 

As we mourn for those who have lost their lives in this current pandemic, let us honor them by having the courage to face and eradicate the stark realities of the root causes of health inequity in our nation. The Alliance for Strong Families and Communities is committed to solving for inequities through the excellence, distinction, and influence of Americans community-based human services organizations. We stand ready to partner with anyone, including policymakers, local, state, and federal agencies, philanthropy and other national groups, especially those comprised of people with lived experiences to create a new reality in our nation that is in our grasp.

It is now up to us.