Race, Health, and Inequality: The Impact of COVID-19 on Black Communities

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B3 Equity Helix Members:

  • Thea Monyeé Winkler, LMFT, Founder MarleyAyo Creative Wellness Consulting 
  • Jennifer Jones, President & CEO, KyJour International Strategic Business Solutions 
  • Barbara A. Perkins, President & CEO, International Black Women’s Public Policy Instittue
  • Margie Scott, JD, Founder, the Law Office of Margie R. Scott, LLC
  • Ruby Long, MD, FACEP, Medical College of Wisconsin
  • Tiffany James, CEO, Justice James Consulting
  • Shontreal Cooper, MD, University of Connecticut School of Medicine
  • Dorothy Russ, MD, JD, The Russ Group, LLC
  • Karen A. Robinson, MPA, President & CEO, Kinnamon Holdings, LLC

If Black communities have learned anything from fighting the COVID-19 global pandemic, it is that surviving all forms of health disparities in America will require a new approach to community, conflict, and the willingness to redefine health for Black Bodies. 

B3 Equity Helix rallied in the early stages of the mysterious COVID-19 virus. We gathered stories from community members and countered early narratives of misinformation that permeated the culture of Black communities through social media; even going so far as to insinuate that Black people could not contract the virus. Swiftly these narratives were dismantled by the painful reality that not only could people of African descent catch COVID-19, but they were also quickly proving to be a disproportionate share of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.

COVID-19 has not revealed anything about Black health in America that was unknown. Over decades, the medical community released quantitative data pointing a finger at a curable problem with little to no intent to co-create solutions with the affected communities. There is a preference to observe the causes of poor health outcomes in Black communities through the objective lens of science. This data is presented to the public–including Black communities as indisputable facts, sanitized, free of context that defines the everyday life and circumstances (i.e. social determinants of health) of Black Americans. Practitioners absorb this limited data into their exam rooms with patients. 

When data paints a picture of a community cycling through health crises without the context of racism, historical trauma, or systemic and economic oppression, we are collectively led to the conclusion that this crisis is self-perpetuated by choices within the Black community alone. 

Clearly Black communities are not powerless. Our continued existence is evidence of our resilience, innovation, and passion in the midst of immeasurable and intentional roadblocks within American society. And our influence in all areas of art, style, academics, athletics, politics and popular culture is indisputable. Certainly, we can be accountable for aspects of our health and begin to push back against the tide of racial health disparities. 

One’s social environment is a primary driver of health. This includes socio-cultural-and economic variables which are not solely within the control of an individual person or community. Instead of asking questions like: Why aren’t Black people eating healthier foods? Consider the question: Do most Black Americans have equal access to healthy foods like their White counterparts? 

Is healthy food and health care cost effective? 

Do Black people have access to land free of concrete where they can grow healthy foods and improve the overall ecosystem of their community? 

Have we, as a healthcare industry, made efforts to partner and co-create with this community? Do we value this community? 

Do we see their strengths and positive attributes? 

Have we reconciled our role in their historical trauma? 

Are we accountable for how this contributes to current challenges?

The answers to these questions lead us to this moment in time. Standing at the impending edge of yet another COVID variant, navigating ever-changing mandates, and amassing a more skeptical and exhausted population by the day. 

Our collective recognized and praised the Biden-Harris administration’s appointment of Dr. Marcele Nuñez-Smith to lead the U.S. COVID-19 and Health Equity Task Force. Black women have been looked to as healers within Black and White communities in this country since its inception. We have a unique and holistic approach to healing that centers cultural data, inclusive of expansive accounts of ecosystems, and invites co-creation. Long before guidelines were established to mitigate COVID-19 Black communities turned to their matriarchs for guidance. This ancestral wisdom was shared amongst households, communities, and even through virtual spaces. Prior to a vaccine, we defaulted to our inherited form of crisis management strategy: Each one, teach one. Each one, reach one.

Numbers do not lie. Our strategies, though passionate and supportive, could not fill the gap created by years of social neglect, structural oppression, environmental apartheid, and untreated trauma. Our communities took hard blows as the pandemic seized the world. We continued to adapt and evolve by creating safe and innovative ways to commemorate birthdays, graduations, and other festivals the communities held dear. We did not demonize those in our community who remained skeptical of the news and government. We found the willing and reevaluated our approaches, refusing to leave anyone behind. 

With the introduction of the vaccine came more hope, and more confusion. A global sense of urgency to defeat a foe we still barely knew took the reins of the COVID-19 conversation. The swift appearance of the COVID-19 vaccine created questions amongst Black communities, and they were–and still are–prepared to delay receiving the vaccine until these questions are answered. Indefinitely. 

Simultaneously, members of the white community began expressing anger and resistance to wearing masks and other suggested guidelines. Unlike their Black counterparts, these feelings were not rooted in a history of medical experimentation and exploitation such as the theft of Henrietta Lack’s cells, the infamous Tuskegee Experiment, and the repeated acts of cruelty committed (e.g. unanesthetized gynecologic surgeries) against the bodies of Betsey, Anarcha, and Lucy performed by the celebrated J. Marion Sims. The outrage swelling within white communities was rooted in a perceived violation of rights. This influenced municipalities and state governments across the nation who rolled back sound evidence-based practices to appease the growing mob. 

These are the voices media and politicians will hear over the concerns and needs over Black communities and other marginalized members of American society.

The conversation around strategies to survive—and thrive—in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic now centers on the outrage of Whiteness. The effects have spilled into Black communities, perpetuating the assumption White vaccine hesitancy and COVID-19 skepticism stems from a similar root cause as Black vaccine hesitancy and COVID-19 skepticism. Internally, this is causing conflict within relationships in the Black community and undermining efforts to make progress in the major areas impacted by health disparity, such as housing, access to food, access to health care, and efforts to hold the medical industrial complex accountable for its role in upholding White supremacy. 

When will we learn?

The most successful Civil Rights Movement in America’s history was led by the Black community, and benefited everyone in the land. Globally, Black led efforts to contain and understand the vaccine are resulting in communal understanding and cooperation, as evidenced recently by the brilliance of South African scientists and advocates. 

Healing this country from racism or COVID-19 will require approaches that exist in the creative resilience of the Black community and other marginalized populations whose voices are being buried beneath the cacophony of politics and white rage. Marginalized spaces are rich with relational, intuitive, and holistic strategies to stabilize this crisis and secure a healthier future for all through equitable and ecological solutions. 

Will we listen?