Around the country, communities of color continue to be among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. So in many of these communities, local leaders are stepping in to try to help solve a problem they say is years in the making.
In Richmond, Va., crews of local firefighters and volunteers have been fanning out across the city, going door to door with plastic bags filled with masks, hand sanitizer and information about staying healthy.
Local health officials say African Americans and Latinos make up the lion’s share of positive cases here, and 23 out of 29 local deaths from the virus so far have been among those groups.
On a recent visit to a public housing complex, Lt. Travis Stokes with Richmond’s fire department said that result was sadly and entirely predictable.
“It’s always gonna affect the lower-income communities and the minorities, just for the simple matter of fact that they’ve been dealing with things for many, many years,” Stokes said. “It hasn’t gone away; it’s still here.”
Richmond’s coronavirus data mirrors national statistics that show the vastly disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on communities of color. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, Black Americans are hospitalized at about five times the rate of white Americans. For Hispanics, the rate is four times that of whites.
Stokes, who recently completed a doctoral degree in health sciences, is helping lead the effort, which targets areas with high rates of poverty and preexisting health conditions and with significant numbers of residents who are racial minorities. All are groups considered at heightened risk for the coronavirus.
Richmond is partnering with the Commonwealth of Virginia to distribute tens of thousands of bags of personal protective equipment to help address the racial gaps.
Dr. Danny Avula, Richmond’s public health director, said another goal is building trust with people who might be fearful of government officials after a long history of oppression.
“Our response to that was, OK, we’ve got to be on the ground more; we’ve got to engage in more face-to-face conversation, and we have to find credible voices and faces in those communities to be able to carry the message,” Avula said.
Leaders and activists around the country are grappling with similar challenges as they try to reach the people at greatest risk.
In Massachusetts, officials are hiring local workers from community health centers to work as contact tracers who can, in many cases, literally speak the language of the people they’re trying to reach.
Michael Curry, an official with the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers and a member of the NAACP’s national board of directors, said that’s important at a time when many people are trying to navigate complicated and sometimes conflicting messages from health officials.
“It’s all so confusing and it makes people very distrustful — even more so distrustful of the system — hence why you need to be very intentional about who communicates with them,” Curry said.
In Mississippi, NAACP leaders say they’ve been distributing masks to people living in hot spots for the virus.
Dr. Oliver Brooks, president of the National Medical Association, a group representing Black physicians, said efforts like these are a good start.
“It’s really important, because literally right now, people are dying, so you need to have an acute response,” Brooks said.
But Brooks said preventing another crisis like this one will require substantial, systemic changes to improve access to food, housing, employment and health care for people of color.
“We have to address the social determinants of health. That is what is putting us at higher risk for poor outcomes,” he said. “It’s the same old story, but that’s what needs to be done.”
Angel Dandridge-Riddick, 34, has worked as a nurse and sometimes visits her mother in the public housing complex in Richmond called Creighton Court. On the day of the supply distribution, she said she appreciated the effort to provide protective equipment to people here, but cautioned that it’s only a small start.
“What they’re doing is great — but to have one hand sanitizer and a few masks — if you have three other people in their home that work in different areas, they’re gonna need their own hand sanitizer. One bottle’s probably gonna last you a week,” Dandridge-Riddick said.
What’s more, she said, it’s hard for many of her neighbors to stay healthy during a pandemic, when they often lack basic health care.
“I’m just being honest. A lot of people out here in Creighton Court don’t know anything about health care coverage; all they know is Medicaid,” she said. “And if they can’t get it, they don’t have anything.”
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said the problems that have compounded this pandemic for many people of color have been around for a long time, and without major structural changes, they will still be around when the pandemic is over. Stoney said he hopes this crisis gives way to long-term change.
“We can’t go back to where we were pre-COVID-19; we’ve gotta go to a different place that ensures that each and every citizen of this country gets the best,” Stoney said. “No matter what neighborhood they live, or the color of their skin.”