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Rather than searching for the "secret sauce" that's caused a disproportionate amount of people of color to get sick and die from COVID-19, several structural inequalities need to be identified and addressed, according to a member of a round table on the subject Tuesday evening, hosted by three local members of Congress.
"So many issues," said Michael Childress, President of the DuPage County branch of the NAACP. "It's cultural, it's food deserts, it's access to nutritional food and it's access to health care. There is a direct correlation between how wealthy you are and how likely you are to get this virus. The virus doesn't care how rich you are, but you can shelter yourself if you have money."
Childress and Sylvia Acosta Chavez, Family Advocacy Center Manager of the Joliet-based Spanish Community Center, were guests in a Facebook live discussion held by U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Naperville and U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, D-Downers Grove on the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color.
Underwood at the top of the discussion noted COVID-19's racial disparities just in Illinois. Although African-Americans make up less than 15% of the state's population, they account for nearly a third of the deaths from COVID-19. Among Hispanics the rate of positive tests is more than three times that of whites, what she characterized as reflective of broader health care inequalities that demand swift action.
Casten echoed that message.
"These disparities are shocking," Casten said. "This is not something where people have a genetic predisposition to COVID. These are issues where the virus likes to move around areas where there is dense populations. For a lot of historic reasons African-Americans are concentrated in urban areas and are more likely to use mass transit. MCC (Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago) has a floor with an 80% COVID rate. If you're on the floor it's an infection sentence.
"The conditions the virus spreads through has highlighted so many systemic inequalities and our challenge in the immediate moment is to learn what they are and when we get through address them."
Chavez said two concerns that have spiked in the last two months among the Hispanic community is insufficient financial assistance for rent, utilities and groceries, as undocumented and mixed-status families don't quality for federal relief, and the issue of mental health.
"Even counseling services that are available are almost always in English. Those that don't speak English don't have access," Chavez said. "Other agencies that provide sliding scales, it's out of people's price range."
While Childress is finding that health care is definitely an issue within the community he serves, it's also a resource and access issue.
"Communities affected the most by the virus don't have the access and the voices to help solve the problem," Childress.
Underwood noted that essential workers, many of them minorities, often cannot telework and work from home, and thus are putting themselves into potential exposure to do their job.
She also pointed out the importance of a plan to target resources toward vulnerable communities to make sure they have the resources like personal protective equipment needed in order to protect people.
"Whether that's PPE, targeting testing, the same way we are flooding nursing homes with tests because we know that those are hot spots for outbreaks," Underwood said, "we should be doing the same for our communities of color and vulnerable communities and medically under-served communities, making sure they have equal access to resources."
Underwood noted that the U.S. House on Friday passed the HEROES Act, which among other things requires health plans to cover the full costs of all coronavirus treatments and vaccines, and also creates a special enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act marketplace, to give people otherwise uninsured a chance to renroll.
"We know that expensive treatment, the threat of a surprise medical bill, or lack of insurance are some things that prevent people who suspect that they are sick from seeking care," Underwood said.
Chavez and Childress noted the barriers of language and transportation could be preventing their communities from getting the care they need.
"Definitely language," Chavez said. "That's something we are continuing to see at a county level. Yes, clinics and hospitals are disseminating plenty of information about the treatment and social distancing, but none of those materials are being translated into other languages. It all comes down to resources."
"If you live in the west side of Chicago or the south side of Chicago, you're just by the nature of the transportation method exposed to a high-risk area," Childress said. "Getting to the proper place to get the healthcare may be a problem. It's a lot to do with prevention, to do with education."
Foster said that one of the big tug-of-wars in Congress right now is where should the responsibility of business be to provide safe working conditions. He noted that in Canada zero nurses have died from COVID-19, while in the U.S. the number is 91.
"That sort of workers' right, particularly in the Hispanic community and undocumented community I hear a lot, that they're being taken advantage of," Foster said. "They know that if they say they want social distance and a mask, I want a safer working condition, businesses say 'OK should I call ICE?' We see abuse happening eight ways to Sunday."
Chavez touched on the businesses' responsibility should they reopen under unsafe conditions.
"I think 100% it should be the responsibility of the employer," Chavez said. "Even now we're seeing several businesses are not providing their employees the proper PPE and they're using scare tactics to prevent them from filing a complaint or not going to work. When it comes to this, it's important that we create some standard and policies regarding it. We also need to have a safety net for those people that are not able to take a step in the right direction to advocate for themselves and their health."