COVID-19 Is Adversely Affecting Black People In America: So What Do We Do?

By Alicia R. Wallace

I remember leaving each day of my graduate public health program with a heavy heart, tight chest, and feelings of hopelessness. I was studying health theory, epidemiology, and even environmental health in hopes of learning how I could use this knowledge to help change the trajectory of health for black people in this country.

The year I was admitted into the program, my dad suddenly died of a heart attack. I was devastated and knew that I wanted to learn how to stop my family’s generations of poor health behavior. I threw myself into my Masters of Public Health (MPH) studies only to be left in dismay each time I studied a chart or conducted a literature review. Our incidence and prevalence of heart disease, breast cancer, HIV/AIDS, obesity, and diabetes, and infant and maternal mortality put us – black men and women – at the very top.  In class, we talk about “populations” with the highest prevalence of disease.” Our scholarly jargon tends to reduce people down to numbers and percentages. And as health professionals we often disconnect the effects of these health behaviors from the everyday people who need our help.

These are not “populations”! These are people! 

As an MPH, I always keep in mind that I am not just studying populations and statistics, but real-life people. They are my grandmothers, my father, my sister and my nieces! And if we are to ever change the trajectory of health for these peoplewe must begin to acknowledge that each number and statistic that we rattle off has a life and a soul and a story behind it!” 

And this is exactly how I feel about COVID-19. We must address solutions to this pandemic in real and personal ways that humanize the people who are being affected. As leaders and key decision makers for the black community, it is imperative for black women to be heavily considered in this conversation. Trusted voices in our community need to become the faces of trusted information during this pandemic. This will help combat the massive amounts of distrust and misinformation that is permeating through the black community in the most detrimental of ways.

The distrust that black Americans have toward the healthcare industry and healthcare statistics is rooted in America’s shameful history about how the country has treated and neglected and violated the health of black in America. (For further reading: black maternal health crisis, The Tuskegee Experiment, and black people and health equity).

These health inequities, once again, put black people at the forefront of this crisis. Reports are showing that black people are more likely to contract and die of COVID-19. The black community’s response to this crisis varies immensely from hypervigilance to despondence to denial. Most of us are taking this seriously. We are worried about the safety of our loved ones and are taking all precautions to “flatten the curve.” Then, there are those who don’t believe in the severity of the pandemic and/or severely distrust the government and the healthcare system to provide them with accurate information and treatment. These sentiments cannot be dismissed. These very real perspectives are also part of what America must address.

As an MPH, I understand the science, and as a black woman I also understand the confusion and antipathy around the issue. I’ve attended several webinars and conference calls about how to galvanize black folks. But here’s the thing- once again, black women are most affected by the disease and trying to save the country at the same damn time. Fewer than 20 percent of African Americans hold jobs that allow them to work from home. We are concentrated in jobs and communities where social distancing is near impossible.

We are cashiers at grocery stores in metro areas across the country. We are putting on the armor of God to protect us amid scarcity in PPE as we take care of our elderly. We are treating patients at hospitals and we are going home with hopes that our families are still safe. And sometimes, out of fear, and feelings that we will always be the last to be protected, we minimize and dismiss the facts that can help us.

So, what do we do? How do we help black women who then help their families who then help communities that then change the world?

I am using the influence that I have in my social circles, to humanize the pandemic. I am speaking to black women with understanding and empathy. I am not using scare tactics. I am acknowledging current and past health inequities. I am speaking of the pandemic in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them but also empowers them to protect themselves and their families by focusing on what they can control.

The NAACP, National Urban League, and BET have published very clear information about how we can respond to this crisis and have listed resources that particularly aid the black community. 

I am trying not to be consumed by bouts of helplessness, anxiety and despair. I am trying to use this time to help black women speak truthfully about the health and economic consequences of COVID-19 so we can help change the course of this pandemic. 

We are not simply numbers at the top of the charts. 

We are women who have changed the course of history in this country several times before. Lending our voices to this conversation lets the world know that we are here and we will be heard.

Alicia R. Wallace, MPH, is a Sr. Advisor and Strategist for AARP. Her work has earned a proclamation by the State of Maryland, a Jackie Robinson Foundation “42 Under 40” Distinguished Alumni award, and appearances in Girlboss, The New York Times, Essence.com, and Gender Avenger. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @iamaliciawallace. 

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