This time last year, few people could have predicted just how terrible the COVID-19 pandemic would be, or how long it would last.
More than half a million Americans have died — over 23,000 of them in Illinois. Hospitals and health care workers have been strained to their breaking point. Millions of jobs have been lost and families are struggling to stay in their homes and put food on their tables.
Now, vaccinations are bringing some light to what was a very dark landscape, but challenges continue to lie ahead.
“If you look at how testing rolled out, how the algorithms that include an implicit bias rolled out, I think we were in a period of shock in learning how we in America kind of pathologically think about equity – or don’t think about equity, I should say,” said Dr. Maya Green, regional medical director of Howard Brown South Region Clinics. “One thing I’m loving, I see that we have evolved to, is we started vaccinating, we saw the map and saw that we were not getting the hardest-hit communities, and we did change course quicker than I thought we would. I don’t want to make it sound like, oh, we’ve achieved equity … but we have moved the needle, and I’m glad to be part of that movement.”
Audra Wilson, president and CEO of the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, says that while the vaccination rollout in Illinois can be praised for many things, it was a “disjointed” effort overall.
“There was a lot of muddled information about where people could go to get vaccinated. There were a lot of difficulties in securing appointments online,” said Wilson. “I’m sure people have heard many horror stories of websites that were crashing or with seniors having to sign up at midnight to try to get appointments, and there are a lot of people who are coming from outside of neighborhoods where there were clinics to be able to get vaccines.”
Beyond the health implications for the Black community are the financial difficulties due to job losses and already fragile economics. Wilson says she quickly realized the damage would be extensive.
“There were so many people who are already marginalized prior to COVID with respect to access to quality health care, affordable housing, living wages and quality educational opportunities,” said Wilson. “For this fleeting moment our country had responded in gratitude, talking about front-line workers, from health care professionals to factory workers and agricultural workers, childcare workers, all the people who made our lives much easier during the shutdown, but who never had the luxury of being able to work from home. But the truth is, these are many of the same people who, prior to COVID, lacked access to employer-based health insurance, lack access to paid sick leave. So, quite frankly, knowing that this was going to become a pandemic, it was clear to us as advocates that this was going to be very, very serious in our community.”
In addition to continued care for the physical effects of COVID-19, Green anticipates a rise in need for mental health services in Black communities in the coming months.
“You look historically with pandemics, what happens is there’s a rise in racial profiling and injustices that are race-based. And so, within that, we know that the Black community literally watched as some people of our community were murdered, harmed,” she said. “On top of watching our loved ones die because, let’s note, Black and brown communities bear the brunt of adverse impact or adverse outcomes from COVID, but also at the same time had to watch not only COVID harming our bodies, but [also] institutionalized racism.”