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COVID-19 and Black Communities: Crisis, Opportunity and Prescriptions for Change (Key Takeaways and Actionable Items)

Cities across the country have seen disproportionate cases and deaths among Black residents due to COVID-19. Many have asked what can be done to address these inequities in the short and long-term. The Center for Urban and Racial Equity (CURE) hosted a webinar last Thursday, COVID-19 & Black Communities: Crisis, Opportunity and Prescriptions for Change, to hear reports directly from Black public health professionals and racial justice advocates in hard hit cities and identify strategies for an equitable response and recovery for Black communities. The webinar was moderated by CURE’s president, Dr. Judy Lubin and featured four speakers:

  • Tiffany Netters, MPA, PMP, Executive Director, 504HealthNet
  • Nina Abubakari, MPH, MBA, JD, President and CEO, Advantage Health Centers
  • Dwight Bullard, Former State Senator and Political Director, New Florida Majority
  • Andre M. Perry, PhD, Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings Institution

The following provides a summary of key takeaways from the discussion including values and and policy priorities that should guide local, state and national responses to COVID-19 racial inequities.

Reality on the Ground – Reports from New Orleans, Detroit and Miami

“We have a humanitarian crisis going on right now.” Tiffany Netters, Executive Director, 504HealthNet

New Orleans – 504 HealthNet in New Orleans serves more than 190,000 patients, more than 70% of whom are Black. Before the COVID-19 crisis, hospitality workers and incarcerated individuals were falling through the cracks of the healthcare system in New Orleans, according to Netters. Community-based health centers, many created during the Civil Rights Movement, were not receiving appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). It was only through local organizing that PPE has been received and is now being distributed by 504 HealthNet to its member organizations. Additionally, as part of the organization’s response, 504 HealthNet has developed two community hotlines for residents to obtain information about testing and treatment resources.

“The history that we have here in terms of inequities is long-standing.” Nina Abubakari,  President and CEO, Advantage Health Centers

Detroit –  Advantage Health Centers was originally started as Detroit Healthcare for the Homeless. In her opening remarks, Abubakari highlighted three important vulnerable populations including the incarcerated, elderly, and homeless. Abubakari grounded her report on COVID-19 inequities in the long history of housing discrminiation in Detroit that has led to contemporary housing issues including a property tax issue where residents were overtaxed by $600 million dollars, causing a third of Detroit houses to go into foreclosure. Furthermore, Black Michiganders have an unemployment rate of 18.7% –approximately twice the rate of whites, and disproportionate representation among the state’s homeless populations. Nationally, Black Americans represent 40% of the homeless population yet comprise only 13% of the total population. According to Abubakari, we still have a long way to go to ensure that necessary testing and contact tracing needs are met.

Miami – Former Florida State Senator Dwight Bullard described his work with New Florida Majority and their effort to create a civic platform for historically underserved and marginalized communities in the most disregarded areas. He discussed how the Florida Governor and Senators’ reliance on information from the Trump administration led to misinformation and disinformation about coronavirus. Bullard also described the lackluster response of the City of Miami to the needs of homeless and incarcerated populations in the city. To respond to COVID-19, New Floria Majority has leveraged its voter registration staff to do virtual wellness checks, conduct surveys to assess resident needs, and host remote town halls. According to Bullard, the digital divide between Black and Latinx communities and White communities has come into clear focus in the state with at-home learning, with reports of over 20% of students not logging onto online learning platforms. 

“There’s nothing wrong with black people that ending racism can’t solve.” Dr. Andre M. Perry,  Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings Institution

Dr. Andre Perry discussed how the combination of housing devaluation, poverty, underlying medical conditions, environmental racism, and other factors have manifested themselves into disproportionate death among Black people in the COVID-19 pandemic. He reminded the audience that COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities caused by past racism. For example, underlying medical conditions have been caused by structural inequality through policy, not individual behaviors. Dr. Perry also highlighted that Black people receive about half the number of loans as white people, and the loans usually have higher interest rates. He noted that Black homes across the country are devalued compared to white homes, causing more than $156 billion in losses. Perry highlighted that the federal government so far has not applied a racial equity lens to COVID-19 recovery efforts including the fact that only 5% of black businesses received money as part of the Paycheck Protection Program.

Values and Principles to Guide COVID-19 Response

  • A racial equity lens should be the core value guiding the distribution of resources 
  • Prioritize essential workers – for testing, benefits, insurance and other resources
  • Mindfulness and awareness of the data sources that are being used to talk about communities of color during the crisis 
  • Focus on community listening sessions and qualitative data 
  • Transparency – Monitor federal apportionment of crisis stimulus funding
  • Localize response – Block grants for mayors with local expertise and money for researchers in specific local contexts
  • It’s time to join something – labor unions, local organizations, political organizations, NAACP, Urban League, other black-led organizations 
  • Representation matters – more Black governors would have led to a better response for Black people 
  • Wi-fi should be a public utility
  • Telehealth – continue to utilize technology in a medical context

Priorities for an Equitable Response and Recovery

Several actionable strategies were outlined to address immediate gaps and opportunities, as well as long-term strategies to ensure an equitable recovery for Black communities.

Address Needs of Vulnerable Populations

  • Federalize essential workers and provide PPE, hazard pay, insurance and paid sick leave
  • Invest in testing and increased access to care — Vulnerable communities should receive testing first – acknowledge that testing requirements such as “drive- through” testing excludes certain people
  • Address the disproportionate impacts of the criminal justice system on communities of color — Release people for incarceration and utilize pre-trial arraignment
  • Provide financial support for families that have lost income, lives, and respect and implement moratoriums on evictions and utility shut offs
  • Stop ordinances that criminalize homelessness 
  • Use stadiums and civic centers for homelessness response 
  • Invest in food security–Provide resources for people to obtain necessary nourishment during the crisis 
  • Prioritize the neighborhoods that have disproportionately been left out before due to redlining and other legislation
  • Invest in chronic disease prevention not just management
  • Ensure access to free and stable wi-fi for students

Strengthen the Social Safety Net

  • Advocate for paid sick leave
  • Defend Medicaid expansion
  • Fight for true universal health care such as Medicare for All
  • Increase unemployment benefits

Respect and Invest in Black Health Professionals and Organizations

  • Invest in Black public health professionals including increased loan repayment for clinical and public health professionals and recruitment of students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)
  • Invest in community health organizations serving people of color
  • Invest in political organizing to change the long-term outcomes for our communities
  • Support small businesses especially black-owned businesses
  • Make healthy a priority while not forgetting the importance of dental care and mental health
  • Money for get-out-the vote focused organizations
  • Ensure medical professionals, essential workers, and people of color are included on advisory boards and in setting policy

Support Black Businesses and Workers

  • Higher local government procurement goals with businesses owned by people of color
  • Tax incentives to incentivize organizations to hire black and brown people who have been displaced by the crisis
  • Create social impact funds to start new businesses

The importance of the 2020 Census was also emphasized, which will have an impact on the amount of funding in areas important for post-COVID-19 recovery. 

“Health care is political, politics is a vehicle for systematic and institutional racism, and our current healthcare system is set up for the failure of communities of color.” Tiffany Netters, 504 HealthNet

During the discussion, the trauma experience by Black public health professionals and health care providers was also mentioned. Tiffany Netters of 504 HealthNet described the compounding trauma of responding to three major crisis including Hurricane Katrina, the BP Oil spill, and COVID-19. “What you did not see or feel is the trauma that was involved. So through each of these positions of my career I have witnessed, experienced, and personally suffered from systematic racism,” she said. It’s critical, Netters argued, that we be mindful of PTSD among public health professionals and the continued impact of chronic trauma especially on communities of color. 

Speakers spoke to the need to continue to use platforms like Zoom in the future to continue to lay out policy demands and develop spaces to continue to have these conversations. CURE invites you to check out the below resources as part of our on-going efforts to ensure a racially equitable response to COVID-19.


Watch the Full Event Here: 

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