July 31, 2020

In Chicago, the city’s new Racial Equity Rapid Response Team is helping minority residents cope with the coronavirus by partnering with established community groups such as West Side United that were working on health equity issues before the pandemic.

In Pennsylvania, efforts are underway to enlist churches in Pittsburgh and elsewhere to help test for the virus and remind residents how to reduce the risk of becoming infected.

Nationally, the American Medical Association and other physician organizations are partnering with Essence magazine on a new campaign to help Black women recognize and address blood pressure issues they may be ignoring during the pandemic.

Those are just three examples of new partnerships and collaborations that have sprouted during the coronavirus crisis to address COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on people of color and the poor. They were mentioned this week in an online panel discussion about COVID-19 and health equity organized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which drew more than 3,000 viewers. It may have been a bit wonky, but the themes are instructive for journalists covering the story of a lifetime.

Five quick takeaways that could help shape and inform virus coverage of in any newsroom, virtual or traditional:

1. It’s not all gloom and doom. The rising number of confirmed cases and deaths remain horrific. Yet from this unprecedented crisis some health care experts see opportunities for long-term positive change. Public health is no longer passed off as the responsibility of hospitals and public health departments. The coronavirus has resulted in new relationships and joint efforts among traditional health care providers, academics, nonprofits, government and private business. The idea is to sustain those alliances to address broader health issues and the social factors that affect health long after this pandemic is contained.

2. Data, data, data. The numbers that are available leave no doubt that Black and Hispanic residents are more likely to be infected by COVID-19 and more likely to die from it. “We are all in the same storm,’’ said David Saunders, the director of the Office of Health Equity for the Pennsylvania Department of Health. “But we clearly are not in the same boat.’’

Yet the data is far from complete. The impact of the virus on people of color is underrepresented, because too many cases in too many states don’t have race or ethnicity information. Many residents who may be infected also are reluctant to get tested because they fear losing their jobs if they are infected and have to take time off. If they are undocumented residents, they fear they may be deported.

3. The story is bigger than the pandemic. Health care experts say the coronavirus has exposed how racism, power imbalances and inequities in areas such as housing, employment and wages contribute to what they label health inequities. That’s why public health officials are embracing efforts to raise the minimum wage, build more affordable housing and improve public education. “All policy is health policy,’’ said Dr. Aletha Maybank, the chief health equity officer and vice president of the American Medical Association.

4. Personal connections are important. Maybank noted just 5% of physicians are black and 5.8% are Hispanic. Mindful of racist practices of the past or biases of the present, there is a distrust of doctors in some minority communities that could be overcome if there were more doctors of color. Health care officials say that skepticism is also important to overcome as communities step up efforts on contact tracing to determine who has been near residents infected by the virus. For tracing to work and help limit the spread of the virus, they said, tracers should be from the same communities where they are working so it is easier to establish trust and convince reluctant residents to talk.

5. Highlight racial and ethnic inequities without stigmatizing. It’s important for the public to recognize that people of color are being disproportionately impacted by the virus, but it’s important to tell the story without inadvertently fueling racist stereotypes. One suggestion from the health experts: Tell the stories of the low-paid workers who can’t do their jobs from home and put their lives at risk: the transit workers, service industry employees, farmworkers. Here’s another suggestion: Add context to make clear Black and Hispanic residents are not being disproportionately affected by the virus because of the color of their skin. Explore the factors that contribute to the disparity, from jobs to housing conditions to access to health care to racism.

It’s important to educate the public about who is being hit hardest by the virus, and it’s easy to cite the numbers. But it’s also important to explain why and what can be done about it, and that is the greater challenge for journalists.

Tim Nickens recently retired as editor of editorials for the Tampa Bay Times. He and a colleague won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing that successfully persuaded Pinellas County to resume adding fluoride to drinking water. This is part of a series funded by a grant from the Rita Allen Foundation to report and present stories about the disproportionate impact of the virus on people of color, Americans living in poverty and other vulnerable groups.

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Tim Nickens recently retired as editor of editorials for the Tampa Bay Times and can be reached at tim.nickens@gmail.com.
Tim Nickens

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