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Three things that could help fix racial disparities during COVID-19 crisis and beyond

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COVID-19 doesn't discriminate by race, and yet black people in the U.S are dying at an alarmingly higher rate than others.

Things are no different here in Michigan, where black people make up less than 14% of the population, but account for 40% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths so far.

Demographic information about COVID infections and deaths is not available from most counties yet, but the numbers in Michigan and elsewhere still indicate an alarming trend. 

There are lots of systemic reasons for these disparities, but this story focuses on three: healthcare, affordable healthy food, and clean drinking water.

Rashawn Ray, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., said these deeply rooted social inequities are showing up through the COVID-19 crisis.

“COVID-19 is an equal opportunity disease. The problem is that our U.S. healthcare system is not,” Ray said.

Ray has written multiple articles for Brookings about what racialized data can say about the current pandemic. He said, among other things, universal healthcare would go a long way in helping black communities survive an event like the coronavirus pandemic.

“So that people get treated before they get deathly sick, and instead can get treated when they initially get ill,” he said.

One thing that could help head off health problems is better access to healthy food.

Omari Barksdale, an artist and activist in Detroit who recently lost his sister to COVID-19, said many of the city’s black residents live in food deserts – where healthy food is either non-existent or unaffordable, " which forces many family members to purchase dollar-menu meals from fast food restaurants, which contributes to the health disparities."

About 40% of black people in Michigan struggle with obesity, according to a report from the United Health Foundation. That’s a leading risk factor for type 2 diabetes – which is one of the underlying conditions associated with poor outcomes for people who contract COVID-19.

An even more basic hurdle in Detroit is water access. The city has shut off water service to 141,000 Detroit homes since 2014.  

"COVID-19 is an equal opportunity disease. The problem is that our U.S. healthcare system is not." - Rashawn Ray

Monica Lewis-Patrick is the president and CEO of We the People of Detroit – a nonprofit that informs and mobilizes community members to improve quality of life in the city. She said Detroit has had a real problem on its hands for a while now.

“So this is a problem of enormous proportion prior to a pandemic, but in the middle of a pandemic it becomes even more so,” Lewis-Patrick said.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department – or DWSD – started shutting off water to homes because people weren’t paying their water bills. But the city and state have agreed to stop water shutoffs during this pandemic.

City officials say fewer than 100 homes in the city still don’t have water, and they’re working to get those households restored.

Lewis-Patrick said after this pandemic is over, creating a water affordability plan – one where people would pay rates based on their income – for Detroit should be a simple choice, but it’s not.

“You are dealing with, many times, policy makers and people that are leading on decisions that have no idea and cannot even fathom some of the conditions and circumstances that people are living in,” she said.

Detroit officials say an income-based plan for water rates would be illegal. That’s an interpretation disputed by water rights activists – and it’s not likely to get settled immediately. 

But it’s an issue that could get attention from a new state task force. Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist is heading up the Cornavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. He says it will do more than look at the causes for the disparities we’re seeing.

“We also want to lay the foundation for program and policy solutions that will address these disparities wherever they present themselves,” Gilchrist said.

Gilchrist said the task force can’t fix all of the social inequities that have led to the disparities in COVID-19 deaths, but it could put Michigan’s most marginalized people in a better position to weather the next storm. 

Want to support reporting like this? Consider making a gift to Michigan Radio today.

Bryce Huffman was Michigan Radio’s West Michigan Reporter and host of Same Same Different. He is currently a reporter for Bridge Detroit.
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