Opinion: Covid-19 inequalities show racism should be declared a public health crisis

Jillian Olinger
Jillian Olinger is chief mission officer for YWCA Columbus.

Throughout its history, the United States has repeatedly disenfranchised and silenced communities of color. Marginalized communities have endured endless campaigns of exploitation, violence, mass incarceration, housing discrimination and economic disinvestment. Recent reports are showing how the COVID-19 pandemic plays out along racial lines, continuing to deprive communities of color of physical, mental and emotional safety in this country.

Here in Ohio, black residents make up about 13 percent of the population yet, as of April 13, represent 19 percent of the diagnosed cases of COVID-19. Other states like Michigan, Illinois and Louisiana have reported even more staggering disparities, especially in COVID-19 deaths.

Through decisions about citizenship, voting rights, land and property ownership, jurisdictions at all levels have influenced distribution of advantage and disadvantage in American society. For example, the history of restricted health care access, a documented bias in treatment and higher rates of environmental stressors have resulted in a population that disproportionately suffers from chronic conditions and the co-morbidities that place them at higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19.

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For all of the guidance that has been released in the name of slowing the spread of COVID-19, at the outset, it was never acknowledged that a majority of these action steps reflect privilege. The ability to protect oneself and adhere to the guidance by public health officials to self-contain is a reach for many concentrated in economically vulnerable neighborhoods. Nutrient dense food is limited; the income to hoard food and supplies is limited; and for housing insecure households, those with limited internet access, or those without the health care centers or other important information distribution organizations (such as libraries), access to appropriate information is limited. 

Now, we must move beyond merely calling out these inequities. It is well-known in the public health field that social determinants of health have an outsized influence on health outcomes. For YWCA Columbus, an organization committed to eliminating racism and empowering women, we believe that as a community, we must see with renewed conviction why declaring racism as a public health issue is the long-term policy response that can outlast this particular moment, redress the wrongs of the past, and shepherd us into a healthier, more equitable future. 

In his State of the City address in January, Mayor Ginther asked Columbus Public Health  to look into moving forward with declaring racism as a public health issue and provide recommendations. YWCA Columbus is proud to be part of a community that has realized the importance of this step, and is excited to partner with our Columbus Public Health department on this initiative. Even in the midst of navigating this pandemic, Columbus Public Health has not forgotten this important call to action, and together, we have been engaging in preliminary conversations on how best to approach this as a community. 

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Because our nation’s legacy of discrimination and preserved structural racism perpetuates racial disparities, actions must be targeted to address the specific needs of communities of color as we fight to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Here are a few things we can do to help:

  • Submit requests for COVID-19 hotlines to collect more comprehensive data, requiring race and ethnicity data of cases to be recorded, and increase transparency of disparities when reporting out. Government should release racial and ethnic breakdowns of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths by county, ZIP code and Census tract.
  • Advocate for equitable access to testing and treatment, such as locating testing centers in predominantly black neighborhoods, or providing free, safe transportation to and from testing and treatment, and access to community-based primary care physicians.
  • Add racial and ethnic identities to the list of prioritized testing qualifiers to better test and treat high-risk populations and provide free health care for those who test positive.
  • Request that high-volume subsidized housing buildings work with local health providers to disseminate important information to residents and create onsite clinic hours to ensure mobility-restricted residents have access to medical care.

We believe the racial disparities in COVID-19 infections and deaths are unacceptable. We are proud to partner with the City of Columbus and Columbus Public Health as they work to declare racism as a public health crisis in Columbus, accept responsibility for the government’s role in creating oppressive systems that marginalize black and brown Americans, and proactively work to create a more equitable community for all our residents.

Jillian Olinger is chief mission officer for YWCA Columbus.