April 21, 2020

We Are Not All in This Together: COVID-19 and African American Communities

Opinion by Dr. Tonya Roberson

A novel phrase has emerged from the novel coronavirus pandemic. “We are all in this together,” but in all actuality are we all “really” in this together? Working as a Community Psychologist and studying the impact of disease and inconsistencies, I have always seen a pattern in health care inequities that exists in the U.S. between African Americans and White Americans that is substantial, and with the overlay of the coronavirus and the magnitude of the spread of this virus the inequities have increased.

African American communities, structurally, are now the hub for the spread of the virus because of the lack of good policies in place, needed community resources, existing food deserts, lack of access to health care and the underlying chronic health issues that exist among that population. So, I am not surprised and feel that no one should really be shocked at the fact that African Americans are dying at a higher rate than everyone else from COVID-19. This disparity fact is not new and only shocking to those who’ve historically turned a blind eye to the dilemma of communities of color in this country.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in a speech to the Medical Committee for Human Rights in 1966 spoke to this same form of inequality, and injustice in health care and stated that it is the most shocking and inhumane. Don Lemon recently hosted an interview with Senator Kamala Harris about the COVID-19 disparities a few weeks ago. In this interview, Harris echoed that the virus is likely to hurt people of color more due to health disparities and pre-existing conditions.

Furthermore, Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently added local urgency, stating 72 percent of residents dying of COVID in Chicago are African American, a fact that underscores how the gross disproportions that existed with African Americans before COVID-19 now , with the overlay of this virus, contributes to the extreme rates of deaths.

University Park is located in Will County and officials there are closely monitoring the outbreaks of the novel coronavirus. University Park Village is taking every precautionary measure to ensure that the health, safety and welfare of the residents,especially seniors, are protected.

Will County Health Department (WCHD) is working with local healthcare community partners, as well as state and federal agencies. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, as of April 20, there had been: 1,692 confirmed cases, 102 deaths in Will County. Research shows that 16 of the 25 hardest hit towns have primarily African Americans residents: Matteson, Olympia Fields and Richton Park are in the top ten, with Glenwood, Country Club Hills, and Hazel Crest close behind. Keep in mind that these are all communities where a fair number of residents are struggling economically.

I am the health ministry leader at New Beginnings Church of Chicago that is coupled with Project HOOD (Helping Others to Obtain Destiny) a community organization that is housed in an old Walgreen’s building on the Southside of Chicago in one of the zip codes that the Chicago coronavirus map has marked to be one of the greatest concentration areas. At Project HOOD we are have attempting to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 by passing out food and face masks to community members, answering questions and concerns about access to testing, and addressing concerns about this pandemic. Our team along with other community partners are working with Governor J.B. Pritzker and his staff to transform this location into a COVID-19 testing site using the drive through for coronavirus testing. I am focused on expanding public health efforts by developing culturally tailored health education and COVID-19 prevention messaging and other strategies to flatten the curve and save lives in the African American communities

I propose to promote and expand my work in community engagement efforts to work with fellow Governor State University faculty, staff, students and community public figures in Southland and Chicago to expand the critical work in the areas of health education and prevention, testing, data, research, and funding to further address the needs of this impacted population.

This is not the first pandemic and will not be the last.

I plan to cultivate relationships with the Village of University Park and Governors State University to address this glaring pandemic of health care disparities that now exist in our state and country with African Americans in order for us to be proactive instead of reactive and be prepared to face the necessary barriers without the loss of so many lives.

Tonya S. Roberson is the Director of Community Engagement, Program Development and Academic Support at Governors State University in the College of Health and Human Services. She is a public health professional with a particular expertise in methods to address health disparities and inequities utilizing health promotion theories, and models to assess the holistic health of African Americans in the urban centers.