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Opinion: REACH Coalition Steering Committee - Structural racism in New Haven illuminated by COVID-19

Opinion: New Haven Register

Opinion: Structural racism in New Haven illuminated by COVID-19

Published 12:00 am EDT, Thursday, July 9, 2020

Data from New Haven suggests that communities of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. In a city where 33 percent are Black/African American, 30 percent are Hispanic/Latinx, and 31 percent of people are white, cases of COVID-19 are disproportionately higher among people of color: 29 percent are Black/African American, 30 percent Hispanic/Latinx, and 14 percent white. Notably, we don’t have a full picture of these disparities, because data from COVID-19 testing sites do not accurately account for race and ethnicity. One-quarter of the reported data are missing these identifiers. We implore the state of Connecticut and local testing sites to ensure accurate data collection. We must have complete data about the disparities affecting our communities.

This data isn’t surprising. It illuminates deep-seated health disparities seen for decades in New Haven and other U.S. communities. According to the DataHaven 2018 Community Wellbeing Survey Report, 17 percent of residents in New Haven neighborhoods that are predominantly Black and Latinx have diabetes, compared to 10 percent of residents in New Haven overall. Disparities by race also occur in asthma prevalence, with 15 percent of white, 22 percent Black, and 30 percent Latinx residents in New Haven reporting asthma. A new DataHaven report on health equity in Connecticut documents stark differences in access to economic opportunities, food, affordable housing, health care, and more, disproportionately impacting low-income individuals and people of color, particularly Black and Latinx residents.

These gaps in health are part of complex issues ingrained in our society. Health is affected by elements related to one’s community, race, environment, and social and economic status. The Black and brown communities that are most at-risk for chronic diseases (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, hypertension) and COVID-19, experience greater barriers within their environments that prevent people from engaging in healthy behaviors. These barriers can be lack of access to affordable healthy foods, streets unsafe for walking and biking, limited recreational resources, among others. These elements are part of the structural racism that has profound impacts on access to health care and opportunities to live a healthy life. We see this play out dramatically with COVID-19.

The New Haven REACH Coalition is a new approach to local solutions. Made up of several New Haven residents and community partners, the REACH Coalition began with federal funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health, or REACH, aims to address systemic barriers that create health disparities in chronic diseases. To address these barriers, REACH brings together members of the community to plan and carry out strategies to address health equity. The pandemic has made the work of REACH more pressing — as chronic diseases are underlying conditions that put people at risk for COVID-19, especially people of color.

Through the specific activities of the REACH strategies put forth by the CDC, we are tackling systems that perpetuate inequities through:

Prioritizing equity in the food assistance system by promoting and coordinating access to healthy foods in food pantries.

Supporting breastfeeding among Black moms by hiring a Black peer counselor, improving community spaces for breastfeeding, and advocating for policy changes.

Creating connections among health centers and community supports through Community Health Workers to help people access resources.

Centering historically segregated communities of color in planning processes for safer and equitable “active” transportation (biking, walking, taking the bus).

The REACH Coalition has also spent its first year focused on the formative work of our member organizations’ and individuals’ roles in upholding components of racist infrastructure that still exists today, resulting in inequities. We are examining systematic ways in which we can address racism by creating racial equity goals and values, and encouraging self-reflection with anti-racism education. The work is difficult and incremental. It is work we must all do.

As the REACH Coalition & Steering Committee, we suggest the following actionable steps for all partners in New Haven and across the state:

1. Foster decision-making that centers the voices of communities by including residents in decision-making roles. Staff, boards, and committees of organizations should reflect the local community.

2. Prioritize health-promoting assets during and after COVID-19, such as increasing access to healthy, affordable foods; ensuring safe, healthy housing; and creating safe neighborhoods.

3. Examine your roles in systems and organizations and identify specific tactics that contribute to undoing racism, such as anti-racist trainings and policy development.

This pandemic has clearly shown the devastating impact of systemic racism. We must work toward ending health disparities and not simply return to “normal” — so that we can all live our healthiest lives.

The REACH Steering Committee is comprised of New Haven residents, local organizations, community partners and existing coalitions, including the Healthier Greater New Haven Partnership and the New Haven Food Policy Council and their respective working groups.

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