Commentary: Get in good trouble and redeem the soul of Pittsburgh

by Rev. Ricky Burgess and R. Daniel Lavelle

We are enduring the greatest public health crisis in our lifetime, i.e., COVID-19. Across our country, Black people are more likely to contract and die from COVID-19 than their White counterparts. This racial disparity is being felt profoundly in the Pittsburgh region. In Allegheny County, Black residents comprise 13 percent of the population but have accounted for 25 percent of COVID-19 cases and 19 percent of all deaths, according to the Allegheny County Health Department. The reasons for the disproportionate number of cases and deaths in Black communities are well-known, e.g., Blacks have a higher rate of underlying conditions such as diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure that make COVID-19 more dangerous.

Blacks also are more likely to work in essential frontline jobs, live in crowded housing, and use public transportation, thereby increasing their exposure to the virus. “These problems have been going on for a long time. A lot of folks are acting surprised by this. It’s not because of their race that this is happening. The virus isn’t going after Black people. It’s because of structural inequities that have led to poor health and greater exposure to the virus,” said Dr. Lisa Cooper, a professor of medicine and public health at Johns Hopkins University and international expert on health disparities. “We’ve got to address the specific underlying problems in these urban neighborhoods…. as quickly as possible,” Cooper added.

In short, the effects of structural racism in America are now literally killing Black Americans. In addition, Black businesses have also been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Bureau of Economic Research found that, during the pandemic, over 41 percent of Black businesses have failed. As historic numbers of Black-owned businesses shuttered, the Center for Responsible Lending estimated that up to 95 percent of Black firms remained ineligible to receive the Federal Cares Act Paycheck Protection Plan funding. There are no data to cause one to believe that Black businesses in Pittsburgh are faring any better. It is one of the reasons that Pittsburgh Black Elected Officials have prioritized linking Pittsburgh Black businesses to all available federal state and local financial assistance.

To summarize thus far, across our country and here in Pittsburgh, because of COVID-19, Black people are disproportionately getting sick and dying and Black businesses are being devastated. Still worse, if we don’t immediately take thoughtful and deliberate action, the next wave of the pandemic will incubate in vulnerable Black communities, spread throughout the general public, overwhelm medical facilities, and once again shut down the region’s economy.

In the short term, we must establish COVID-19 prevention campaigns in predominantly Black communities. We must engage trusted local Black leaders, community-based and faith-based organizations and Black community businesses to help communicate proper prevention practices. These prevention campaigns must include more than medical education, testing and treatment. We must also provide housing where those infected with the virus can be quarantined to avoid spreading it to the people with whom they interact. We must provide financial assistance to compensate for lost wages and social services resources for affected families. Finally, we must invest in Community-based Health Centers which are the trusted source of medical treatment for the most vulnerable Black residents. For example, it’s imperative that we build a new Alma Illery Medical Center facility, the flagship location of Primary Care Health Services, with several branch locations around the city. If we are going to successfully defeat COVID-19, then we need our communities to have access to world-class medical facilities in their respective neighborhoods.

However, the long-term reaction to COVID-19 must be the elimination of the underlying causes of racial health disparities. The real cause of Black death and destruction is structural racism. The COVID-19 pandemic is simply the latest reminder of our country and city’s moral imperative to distribute resources based on racial equity, which means disproportionate investment in Black people and the communities in which they live. The World Health Organization’s Social Determinants of Health reminds us, we must significantly invest in economic development, education, housing, employment and entrepreneurship until Black communities have sufficient community amenities and resident opportunities for a high quality of life for Black people. In Pittsburgh, when the Black communities are healthy, then all communities are better off.

In the spirit of the late John Lewis, let us come together, let us “get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of (Pittsburgh) America.”

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