Transforming Our Systems: What COVID-19 Reminds Us about Race 

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Transforming Our Systems: What COVID-19 Reminds Us about Race 

Categories: Blog

by Tiffany McDowell, YWCA Equity Institute Director

Photo of Tiffany McDowell
Tiffany McDowell, Equity Institute Director, YWCA Evanston/North Shore

The world as we know it is changing. The global COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the cracks in our fragile system. While our communities have faced past crises with resilience and strength, the current situation shows that the safety nets we hoped would be available are not enough. Some of us are learning that keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe is much more difficult than simply staying at home.

We know that racism is more than personal bias. Racism continues because it is built into our institutions and policies, fostering predictable patterns of inequity.

Over the past week local leaders released data that wasn’t very surprising to the Equity Institute team – racial health disparities are showing up in the way our communities are being impacted by COVID-19. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, two of every five COVID-19 deaths in Illinois have been one of the state’s 1.8 million Black residents. While Black residents make up only 14.6% of the state, they’ve suffered 42% of Illinois’ 307 coronavirus deaths.

While many of these cases are in the City of Chicago, these trends can also be seen across Suburban Cook County. Black residents are dying at a rate of 12.6 lives lost per 100,000 of population in Cook County – three times the rate for whites (4.3 per 100,000) and Asians (4.7 per 100,000), and almost six times the rate for Hispanic/Latinos (2 per 100,000).

These differences are startling at first glance, but they mirror data that we have historically seen for other illnesses. What’s important to understand is why these rates exist in the first place. Current guidance to reduce risk of COVID-19 exposure is to stay at home and shelter in place, subsequently many employers have shifted to remote work approaches. Unfortunately, less than one in five Black Americans and one in six Hispanic/Latino Americans are working jobs that can be performed remotely,  increasing the likelihood that they will come in contact with the virus.

This reminds us that our structures and systems are not yet equipped to support all of us. Black and Hispanic/Latino residents have historically been disproportionately affected by health-related issues including poverty, environmental pollution, segregation, and limited access to medical care. All of these conditions intensify vulnerabilities to this highly contagious virus and reduce likelihood of surviving the infection.

It should not have taken a global pandemic for our leaders to realize that race still matters and racism is just as pervasive as ever. We must continue to support each other in transforming our systems so that race is no longer the predictor of what it means to truly be healthy and well.