SPRINGFIELD — While African Americans make up just less than 15 percent of Illinois’ population, they account for approximately 43 percent of the state’s COVID-19 fatalities and 28 percent of its confirmed cases, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
In a virtual town hall meeting on the issue last week, state public health and African American community leaders agreed that COVID-19 is not creating, but is laying bare longstanding public health disparities along racial lines.
“COVID-19 is putting these long-lasting inequities on display,” said Congresswoman Robin Kelly, a Democrat who represents Illinois’ 2nd Congressional District in the south suburbs of Chicago and serves as the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust chair. “The adage is true – when they get a cold, we get pneumonia.”
IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said a number of factors — such as pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, which are more prevalent in black communities — are contributing to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19, making the “horrific” statistics “not totally unexpected.”
Ezike and various leaders also said African-Americans often live in more crowded, multigenerational homes, and many still must work in public-facing positions because they are essential yet low-wage workers who cannot afford to take time off.
“We believe that these disparities, or these differences, are the result of injustices, things like redlining (excluding certain neighborhoods from access to financial services), economic disinvestment, less access to health care or health insurance, food insecurity, the list goes on,” Dr. Kiran Joshi, co-director of the Cook County Department of Public Health, said in the virtual town hall.
While Joshi said there is an “increasing understanding” in public health and government that the underlying reason for such disparities is “structural racism,” he noted, “No single local public health department or health care organization or elected official could do this on their own.”
For leaders throughout African American communities statewide, current efforts are focusing on local community outreach with trusted organizations, a call for greater testing and data collection, and a focus on promoting available state and local resources.
On Friday, April 10, Gov. JB Pritzker announced plans for greater testing and available alternative housing in black communities as well.