Forewarned is forearmed in the case of the novel coronavirus, which American health officials believe will affect the nation's respiratory systems in coming weeks. (Courtesy of CDC)
Courtesy of CDC

African Americans are dying from COVID-19 at rates well above non-Hispanic white residents. In the District, despite being less than 47 percent of the city’s population, over 75 percent of the residents who have died due to complications related to COVID-19 were African American. While the virus does not discriminate on the basis of race, our history of being slow or unwilling to ensure African Americans have equal health, food, and housing outcomes are the reasons coronavirus has had a devastating impact in every major city with a significant size African-American population.

I am horrified by these grim statistics but even more perplexed as to why many people outside of Wards 7 and 8 are only now waking up to the fact that these disparities exist. COVID-19 has an insidious way of attacking people with pre-existing health conditions.

A 2016 report from the Georgetown University School of Nursing and Health Studies, titled “Health of the African-American Community in the District of Columbia,” showed that the residents of Wards 7 and 8 have health outcome disparities in every statistical category including: obesity, heart disease, diabetes, smoking-related respiratory illnesses, cancer, etc. So, while we must do everything possible to communicate with vulnerable communities of color on how best to protect themselves from COVID-19, even our best efforts will not be able to eliminate the disproportionate, adverse impact COVID-19 will have on African-American communities.

When I returned to the Council, I specifically asked to chair the Committee on Health. In this role, I have been fighting for a state-of-the-art community hospital that anchors a true health care system for Wards 7 and 8, equitable access to full-service grocery stores and universal birth-to-three education. We have made enormous progress in these areas. We have been able to reassemble $325 million to build a state-of-the-art community hospital on St. Elizabeths campus. This new hospital will serve as the catalyst for a true interconnected health care system of emergency care, urgent care, specialty care, ambulatory care, primary care, medical offices, independent physicians and dentists. Already we are seeing pieces of this health system come together: a new urgent care system will be operated by MBI Health Services; Howard University Hospital and Unity Health Care are partnering for a new health center at 4430 Benning Road, NE; a medical office building will be coming to Skyland; and Unity Health Care and Sibley Memorial Hospital jointly established a cancer care clinic within Unity’s Parkside Health Center.

In addition to building a health care system, I have been working hard to bring food justice to the East End of the District. Combined, Wards 7 and 8 only have three grocery stores between them, which is less than any of the western six wards have individually. Bringing more full-service grocery stores and retail amenities to Ward 7 was the number one priority over 400 residents identified at an all-day work session at a December 2016 Ward 7 summit. A lack of convenient access to affordable, healthy food contributes mightily to the fact that residents in Wards 7 and 8 are more than twice as likely to be obese. A Lidl full-service grocery store is coming to Skyland but it has been a challenge to get persons who don’t live East of the Anacostia River to internalize the frustration and urgency we feel about ending food access disparities.

I’m angry that it takes a pandemic like COVID-19 to highlight racial inequality. As we emerge from the grip of the coronavirus, one of two things will happen. What I fear is that everyone will quickly forget their outrage and go back to business as usual.

If people are genuine in their sentiment about how this virus is disproportionately killing African Americans, then as we emerge from this pandemic, I ask everyone to rally behind initiatives that will uplift communities of color, which have had unequal outcomes in health, education and income ever since our ancestors were brought to the United States in the most grossly inequitable way imaginable.

Now is the time to make a lasting difference. It is up to us.

Vincent C. Gray is the D.C. Council member for Ward 7, chairperson of the council’s Committee on Health and former mayor of the District of Columbia.

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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  1. An important issue. In addition, East of the River (EOTR) principals at Boone ES and Kimball ES are being fired because they questioned Relay: racist and militaristic practices mandated upon EOTR school, only. Relay is not mandated for West of the River schools. A White Instructional Superintendent, also a Relay coach, enforces these racist practices. This is clear racial inequity; however, all silence from Vincent Gray and many others. Trayon White has called and written a letter; nevertheless, where is Ward 7, Ward 8 and citywide outcry? “Now is the time to make a lasting difference. It is up to us,” Mr. Gray stated. Mr. Gray, it up to you to stop talking and stand up and act up.

  2. Needless to say that the only time we in ward 7 hear from Vincent Gray is when it’s time for election. I am a senior citizen of ward 7 and have been for 24 years. During this pandemic I am constantly being told about how Trayon White in ward 8 sees to it that his seniors are looked after. Every week they are given a bag or box of fresh veggies and or fruit. I don’t believe Vincent has reached out to seniors at all. Even the police don’t police like they should. There is a fire hydrant in front of my house and cars are always parked in the front of it. I have seen police drive right by cars parked there and don’t even bother to stop. There is always something happening in the hood like a fire about two weeks ago and the fire dept had to use the hydrant down the street. We aren’t just forgotten by others, we are forgotten by our own representatives. Now when and how can I help with the problem of the principals being fired?

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