JOHNSON: Health disparities are an American problem

Last week, I came across several major news reports that have released early data regarding the racial disparities in health and socioeconomic class that the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing. Actually, “exacerbate” is probably a more fitting term than “expose” considering racial health disparities have been studied for slightly over a century, dating back to the first sociological study performed by W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1899 book, “The Philadelphia Negro.”

In his chapter titled “The Health of Negroes,” Du Bois examined how poverty and “social degradation” were linked to poor physical conditions of blacks living in the city’s most densely populated sections. The same social and economic concerns that Du Bois raised in the late 19th century regarding the well-being of Philadelphia’s black population have been addressed in a similar manner by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney in his response to the spread of the coronavirus.

In a recent CNN interview, Kenney said, “We’ve had people of color being hit with this more than anybody else because people are living in poverty and don’t have health care.” He elaborated by pointing out that “Systemic racism and bad policy over the years has created a situation where African Americans and other people of color are more susceptible to hypertension, diabetes … and that is just as much a tragedy and as much a crisis in this country as the coronavirus is.”

As a nation, we are already sharply divided along partisan lines when it comes to discussing systemic racism and policies aimed at combatting it, which include not only decreasing health care disparities but also providing more opportunities for quality education, decent housing and gainful employment. COVID-19’s deadly impact on African American communities in Philadelphia and other large cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit and New Orleans, in addition to its disproportionate effect on other minority groups such as Native Americans and Latinos, is pushing the national conversation regarding inequality to a critical level. Let’s also not forget that since poverty is a crucial part of this conversation, we cannot overlook the vulnerability of poor whites to COVID-19 in rural areas whose hospitals, grocery stores and other essential businesses face serious economic challenges as revenue streams are slowly drying up.

One significant question that I raise as we continue to analyze the intersection of race and class as it relates to those contracting the virus has nothing to do with quantitative data that will continue to come forth. I ask, “Are we going to be more genuinely concerned about the welfare of our fellow citizens once this crisis has subsided?” As we are fighting COVID-19, we need to get to the root of the problem that has always divided us along racial lines in this country, which is lack of Godly love and empathy for one another.

One of the popular catchphrases that I have seen on city billboards, which has also become a hashtag on Twitter, is “We’re in this together.” I mentioned this in my column titled “I Am My Brother’s and Sister’s Keeper” last month. In being in this together, we need to feel connected as a people as we see the terrifying and sorrowful images of bodies being loaded into refrigerated trucks in the Queens borough of New York. We need to be collectively concerned about older Americans living in small Southern counties. Many have said that they cannot wait for things to get “back to normal” when this is over, but one obvious lesson that we should have learned by now from the COVID-19 pandemic is that we cannot go back to normal given that so many people have been suffering. Though relief and aid are coming through the stimulus package, people are still going to need help once these funds have run out. What is even more vital as we move forward in addressing the glaring health disparities brought to the forefront by the coronavirus is that we are going to have to view these hardships as American problems. What ails black America and rural America is really an American dilemma. Our analysis of these social issues has hardly changed that much since Du Bois’ time, which is telling. 

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University’s Lima campus.