In the early days of the pandemic, we often heard COVID-19 was a powerful equalizer: everyone was at risk. Of course, that was far from the truth. Especially here in D.C.
Instead, the pandemic reminds us what we’ve long known — that systems were not designed for everyone, especially Black women. We are witnessing the impact of the deep-seated barriers in our government, economy, and health care that deny Black people health, wellness, and economic security. Here in D.C., Black people are six times more likely than white people to die from COVID-19. Massive economic disparities preventing Black women from being able to afford fundamental expenses, from rent to food, go hand-in-hand with the systemic inequities that we also face in health care. And the reality is that this is nothing new.
As a Black woman and reproductive justice leader, I’ve always known that our ability to access health care, provide for ourselves and our families, and, certainly, to decide whether and when to become a parent, are all crucial to our wellbeing and our ability to thrive. We must have control over our own bodies.
Even before the pandemic, longstanding injustices meant that Black residents in D.C. make about one-third of what white residents do. Black D.C. residents face more diseases like cancer and heart disease. Black women in D.C. also face one of the worst maternal health crises in the country, worsened by barriers to prenatal care and the shuttering of hospitals with maternity wards.
One of those deep-seated longstanding injustices includes restrictions, stigma, and racism that push abortion care out of reach for Black women. In D.C., there are severe restrictions on insurance coverage of abortion care, meaning 55,000 women in D.C. enrolled in Medicaid could be forced to choose between paying for their rent or food, or abortion care. Across the country, anti-abortion state politicians have passed more than 450 abortion restrictions in recent years designed to push abortion out of reach. These include outright bans, as well as laws designed to shut down clinics, insurance coverage bans, and other restrictions that create obstacles and can make it next to impossible to get an abortion.
This is all being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The costs of travel to reach abortion care, the added restrictions on travel due to COVID-19, rampant job losses, and the pandemic’s strain on the health care system have all compounded to make abortion care even more difficult to reach.
When someone wants to get an abortion but is denied, they are more likely to fall into poverty, less likely to have a full-time job, and twice as likely to experience domestic violence. This is another way that our ability to thrive is denied.
Now, instead of people calling the pandemic a great equalizer, I hear unsettling calls for a return to normalcy when the pandemic is over. But returning to normal is not good enough to forge a new path forward.
Our future must include, first and foremost, fixing the systems, existing long before COVID-19, that denied the health, safety, and wellbeing of Black women and our families in all areas of our lives. We need economic security, safer communities, food and housing security, and access to the full range of reproductive health care in our communities. This new future must include access to abortion care that is available to anyone who needs it, wherever they live and whoever they are, and is covered by insurance.
We don’t need a return to normal. We must build power in our communities by mobilizing to change policies, running for office when the policymakers in office don’t see our needs as a priority, and organizing for a future where Black women can control our bodies and thrive. That would be a great equalizer.
Marcela Howell is the founder and president/CEO of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda.