Communities of color have traditionally faced disproportionate challenges, including air and noise pollution, lower incomes, and limited access to healthy food and medical care. Experts say the coronavirus pandemic has magnified all of these challenges.
On a teleconference hosted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Harvard public health professor David R. Williams raised alarm about the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, pointing out that minorities are already experiencing stress associated with racial discrimination, and the multi-faceted social upheaval brought on by the pandemic is taking a toll on physical and mental health.
"Even before COVID-19 and with COVID-19 plus the George Floyd death, there is, it is, really very very high levels of stress within minority communities that only increases their risk for the pandemic."
Williams suggests pandemic recovery focus on addressing disparities.
"Research has indicated that living in an area of high levels of air pollution is associated with elevated risk of hypertension and asthma. And as far in the pandemic, some of my colleagues at Harvard have published a paper showing the link between living in an area of high air pollution and having more severe cases of COVID-19 and being more likely to die from COVID-19"
There are other health factors to consider: cancer, heart disease, stroke and obesity are common in low income neighborhoods.
Williams believes the existing disparities “reflect longstanding social policies” that have created generations of inequity.
"When we look at the wealth, the economic reserves that households have, for every dollar of wealth white households have, Black households have 10 pennies and Latino households have 12 pennies. So that we're looking at groups that were devastated before COVID came, and if we only look at income we understate the degree of economic need and economic hardship those communities are facing, and I have argued we need to pay more attention to wealth in terms of the allocation of assistance and emergency assistance to communities, not only income, you've gotta look at wealth."
Williams has come up with what he calls “a Marshall Plan” that would prioritize investment to create healthy homes and communities.
"To really create the opportunity structures from early childhood to education to acts that create job opportunities and the quality of neighborhood and housing environment, that's just one of the things we need to do. And that's where as a nation we need to devote attention of how we can create opportunity at a neighborhood level."
In the Capital Region, an initiative is already under way to study COVID’s impacts. University at Albany president Dr. Havidán Rodríguez was tapped by Governor Andrew Cuomo to work with the state Department of Health to lead a team tasked with researching COVID-19’s disproportionate impacts.
"If you look at the data, it's not an issue for New York state only. It is an issue across the country, literally, in which you have reporting by states and minority communities, individuals and minority communities have disproportionately higher testing positive for COVID-19, higher hospitalization rate and higher mortality rates, as well."
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