Early on in the COVID-19 crisis, we were told that this infectious disease is “the great equalizer.” It knows no geographic boundaries, doesn’t care what your politics are, and kills people from all walks of life. More recently, though, another truth has emerged: People of color, particularly blacks, are far more likely to die from the coronavirus than whites — a stark reminder of the social inequities that plague our society.
Data from the city of Chicago show that blacks account for more than two-thirds of the city’s COVID-19 deaths. They are dying at a rate almost six times higher than whites, despite making up just 30 percent of the city’s population. Across Illinois, blacks comprise 14 percent of the population but 30 percent of the coronavirus positive cases and 43 percent of the deaths.
Reports from other hot spots underscore this truth. In Milwaukee, blacks account for 73 percent of virus-related deaths despite making up 28 percent of the population. Across Louisiana, where blacks make up 33 percent of the population, they account for 70 percent of virus deaths.
Even the gathering of data on the disease is unequal, experts say. Only a handful of states require reporting of race and ethnicity by public health staff. In those that do, staff often fail to check those boxes when reporting on a positive test.
The fact is, people in the industry already knew a virus such as this would take its highest toll on communities of color. These populations lack equal access to good nutrition, transportation and quality medical care, and suffer the most from underlying chronic conditions such as asthma, hypertension, diabetes and other chronic conditions. The question is, what can we do about it?
One major answer is to improve diversity in leadership, which is the mission of my organization, The Leverage Network. Our non-profit was founded to change lives by changing how healthcare is governed. Black representation in healthcare boardrooms and executive offices, where decisions are made on resource allocation, policies, and practices with life-or-death ramifications, is essential if we are to avoid a repeat of COVID-19. The unique perspectives and life experiences black directors bring to the table help their fellow directors truly understand disparities in access and quality. Such collective “wokeness” is a trait of highly successful organizations.