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  • Mercy A. Quaye

Virus Hardest on Victims of Segregation

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

By Mercy A. Quaye

April 19, 2020

A man wears a protective mask as he waits to cross a street.
Photo courtesy of CTInsider

I think it’s safe to say we’ve pulled away from the idea that COVID-19 is the great equalizer. But if for some reason you’ve held onto that sentiment for dear life, allow me to dispel that. Coronavirus might not discriminate, but we still do.

The same inequities and injustices that people of color have always faced are being exacerbated because of this pandemic.

Black, brown, Native, immigrant and poor communities across this country and state are poised to be decimated in the wake of this pandemic, and contrary to what Dr. Anthony Fauci or U.S Surgeon General Jerome Adams would like you to believe, highlighting underlying health concerns as the issue only distracts us from the real issue: centuries of institutionalized racism.

“The problem stems from the history and the haunt of overt racism and oppression that is now showing up as structural racism,” said Tekisha Dwan Everette, executive director of Health Equity Solutions, a health and health care advocacy organization based in Hartford. “We’ve created communities based on redlining. We disinvest in those communities and don’t support them. We rob them of grocery stores, education, employment opportunities and public parks, then we turn around and say there’s something wrong with these communities.”

So much of the harm done to black and brown communities over centuries in this country even after emancipation resonates in subversive ways that have allowed otherwise well-meaning white people to overlook them completely. To the untrained eye, co-morbidities and pre-existing health concerns like heart disease and diabetes are moral failings on the micro-level and are the sole responsibility of people who don’t value their health. But to those who pay attention, those underlying health concerns stem from racism any which way you look at it.

I’ll walk you through it — segregated schools meant fewer resources for black and brown students. Fewer resources meant fewer opportunities to achieve. Few achievements meant fewer job opportunities. Lack of employment makes it difficult to buy high-quality healthy food, and even if you could swing it, redlining enclosed black people into densely populated urban city centers that are either food deserts or aren’t welcoming to black or low-income people.

The cycle continues.

I can play the struggle Olympics all day and we can talk about who’s got it worse if we want, but that’s not really a productive point. The history that has decided the color and value of every street corner is the same history that brings us to today — fighting the worst pandemic in a century on the backs of already underserved and oppressed populations.

But there’s still time to fix it in Connecticut.

Unlike other states that are seeing the disproportionate representation of black people in their COVID-19-positive and death rates — Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana — Connecticut is in an early enough position to make sure no one racial or ethnic group is overrepresented in the death rates of this disease, according to Everette.

“Connecticut is not there yet and we have an opportunity to pause and do the work to use the data we’re collecting to make sure the necessary information is reaching these communities,” she said. “We can start collecting the data, analyzing it and redirecting our efforts. We can fix this now and put more investment into outreach and education on social distancing. We need to make sure that no one population is overrepresented in the fatalities. There were problems existing before the start of this, but we can fix this. In Connecticut, there’s still time to get it right.”

She added that implicit bias and poor treatment at hospitals may intensify the issues.

“If we continue to do what we’ve always done, our communities will be decimated,” she said. “Even if we flatten the curve and decrease the number of people contracting it, who this’ll hit the most is the essential workforce. It’s is going to be rough, on the health side particular, but on the economic side this is going to be hard on our communities.”

Over the phone, at the beginning of an incredibly busy day for both of us, Everette and I thought about what’s at stake if some of our most vulnerable communities take the brunt of the blow of this pandemic.

The possibilities are grim.

From my perspective, the vibrant culture and arts we get from diverse communities are at risk. With racism baked into the very core of our American lives, overcoming it in the best of times is an uphill battle. In the worst of times, like the ones we find ourselves in now, overcoming the impact of racism seems insurmountable. If the future of black people relies on white people’s ability to understand and correct the issues at hand, we may have a bad prognosis.

But if we don’t get it together with the short runway we have left, Everette detailed that the composition of the economy may never be the same.

“We have a disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos on the front line right now both from the health care perspective and in the essential workers,” she said. “The bottom line is African Americans and Latinos are also over-represented in the middle and lower classes. We drive the economy and we’re the ones who are going to be most heavily impacted.”

Without action to avoid these racial trends we’re seeing throughout the country, it’s likely COVID-19 will force us to live in the physical manifestation of the realities of racism we chose to avoid.

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