Posted by Ira Memaj & Robert Fullilove
COVID-19 is killing Black Americans and many of the residents of other communities of color at alarming rates. In cities like Chicago, Black residents make up one third of the city’s population, yet 70% of deaths related to the coronavirus were among Black residents. Similarly, in Detroit, where Black residents make up 80% of the city’s population, 75% of all coronavirus fatalities are comprised of Black Detroiters. In a Free Press opinion recently, Wayne State University President, M. Roy Wilson, notes that the pandemic demonstrates that health is at the nexus of many other inequalities and inequities that plague minority communities.
As a public health researcher at Wayne State University examining health disparities among Black women and now, as a graduate student of public health at Columbia University, I have been in regular contact with the Detroit Association of Black Organizations. My questions to them, directed at the Reverend Horace Sheffield, have often focused on the legacy of the city’s “color line problem” and its impact on the equitable distribution of health services. As he has frequently observed, the history and legacy of racist policies in Detroit are evident in the city’s food insecure neighborhoods, the empty homes in the urban sprawl, the frequency of water shutoffs, the redlining policies that lock Black Detroiters to homelessness, and the lack of educational and high-quality work opportunities.
Although frequently ignored by city officials, these challenges are often met with an unflinching eye by community-based organizations (CBOs) that have historically been at the forefront of seeing to the health needs of disadvantaged neighborhoods when city government could not. CBOs are the backbone of our communities, some more visible than others in their impact and in the needs they meet. During this pandemic, CBOs are generally struggling financially as they simultaneously adjust their work environment, safety guidelines to protect their staff, and the demand for their services and program, which have surged beyond the scale their networks are prepared to handle. With the cancelation of networking and fundraising events and the lack of donations during this pandemic, their finances, capacity, and resources are strained.
Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, a CBO that has tirelessly worked to reclaim food justice and to address barriers to community food production, is planning to postpone its urban programming for this spring. Malik Yakini, executive director of DBCFSN, informed me recently, “One way we have been impacted by COVID-19 beside trying to keep our staff healthy and employed, is by foregoing our first crop which usually occurs in March. Our methods of food delivery and our farmer’s market will be determined according to the mandates and how the pandemic progresses.” With little to no food to produce, many residents living in food insecure neighborhoods will not only lose access to healthy, affordable food, but they will be forced to revert to purchasing from local convenience stores. There, they will find shelves that are either empty or stocked with canned goods with high sugar and sodium content. Consumption of these products contribute to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic illnesses that are associated with significant COVID-19- related morbidity and mortality.
Community health centers often serve as a lifeline to many uninsured and underinsured Detroiters with chronic conditions. However, the challenges of the pandemic are threatening the provision of services. Nabeel Shahzad, Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors of Huda Clinic, a free health care facility in Detroit, notes that as the pandemic progresses, Huda will have to use their small emergency fund to ensure safety of their staff and patients and deliver the high quality of care that Detroiters deserve. “The lack of funding will lead to reduction of operation hours, staff, and of public health outreach programs that focus on food and water justice and education in Detroit communities,” says Shahzad. As the pandemic subsides in the coming months, and as the CBOs slowly limit their capacity to serve, who will take care of disadvantaged communities?
I vividly remember witnessing the despair that accompanied Detroit’s bankruptcy a few years ago. However, I also remember our resilience as we collectively joined forces with our neighbors and formed numerous community organizations in an effort to bring a diverse array of services to each other. Community organizations rise from a tradition of lifting voices, not echoes. They come from a tradition of giving and empowering. As a consequence, as they are struggling to survive financially. We cannot allow them to fade from view during this pandemic-driven economic crisis. To do so will be a detriment to the well-being of communities, especially since their services will be tremendously needed in the aftermath of COVID-19.
The recovery that is being increasingly discussed in the press and social media outlets cannot proceed effectively in poor communities without the input and the leadership of CBO’s. Seeking to assure their continued ability to survive and thrive must be one of the city’s major priorities as it seeks to prepare for an uncertain and challenging future.
Ira Memaj is a Public Health Graduate Student and researcher of mass incarceration at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.
Robert Fullilove (EdD.) is a professor of Sociomedical Sciences at the Columbia University Medical Center.