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What Experts Say About Narrowing COVID-19 Racial Disparities

Our latest digital discussion addressed why the coronavirus has disproportionately struck communities of color and potential pathways to change.

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As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the United States, it has disproportionately struck communities of color, particularly African Americans. As a recent ProPublica Illinois article revealed, of the first 100 recorded deaths from the coronavirus in Chicago, 70 of the victims were African American.

ProPublica Illinois hosted a digital event on Thursday to take reader questions on what’s driving these racial disparities. Moderated by ProPublica Illinois Editor-in-Chief Louise Kiernan and featuring reporters Duaa Eldeib and Akilah Johnson, along with Dr. David Ansell, senior vice president for community health equity at Rush University Medical Center, the discussion also focused on how to meaningfully address them.

While racial health disparities have persisted long before COVID-19 — the result of decades of disinvestment in black neighborhoods that have fewer jobs, diminished opportunities and poorer health — Ansell said the devastation created by COVID-19 may present a catalyst for change.

“I think, writ large, what we’re going to find after COVID is a country that is poor, with large numbers of unemployed, and a health care system that is going to be incredibly damaged by this,” Ansell said. “Because actually taking care of sick patients, all across America, bankrupts health care systems. We’re going to have to ultimately come to a reckoning around the way to finance health care.”

Ansell predicts increased access to health care through a national solution, such as a single-payer system. He also expressed optimism about more mayors making capital reinvestment in communities of color a matter of public policy. Chicago, for example, launched a task force in 2008 focused on improving breast cancer survival rates for black women.

“If you get places to apply a standard of care, we can make a difference in who lives and who dies,” he said, citing the success of that work. “We know that can be done for other things as well. So it’s not going to happen overnight, but we actually have the tools. That, and being aligned around the idea that racial equity is a goal for cities, makes me tremendously optimistic that we can make a dent in it this time.”

Johnson added that, during her reporting on COVID-19 and racial disparities, a common refrain was that we should have anticipated this based on what we’ve learned from past pandemics.

“But what history has also taught us is that how you begin to make change is to continue to advocate and push on the levers of power that actually have the ability to make change,” Johnson said, citing U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and her push for the release of racial data on people who are tested or treated for the virus. “She’s not just asking for data for data’s sake,” Johnson continued. “She’s asking that resources then follow the data, and that the data informs the response. … That’s what the advocates and activists and elected officials that we have spoken to throughout this are constantly reminding people of. In addition to the lessons that history has taught us of who dies first and who is most impacted by pandemics is: how do you then begin to change that situation?”

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