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Racially Equitable COVID19 Rapid Response from a Front-Line Public Servant

While the realities and impacts of COVID19 continue to unfold, I reflect on past moments in my life that are reminiscent of this time. Prior to working at Living Cities, I worked as a Public Information Officer for the Center on Health Equity at the New York City Department of Health coordinating community outreach during the time of the Ebola outbreak. Starting then, and continuing in my current work at Living Cities, I’ve come to increasingly understand that health is determined by context more so than genetics and our context is determined largely by race. As Charles Blow recently stated, “The idea that this virus is an equal-opportunity killer must itself be killed”. It is critical that the response to this pandemic be guided by an explicit racial equity lens in order to save lives and addresses the ways this crisis exposes the racial inequities in our system of health.

Below are some of my reflections from participating in the community outreach during the Ebola Crisis while at the Center on Health Equity and my lessons learned in my racial equity work at Living Cities:

Health crises can give rise to racial bias and stigma. Health Crises can quickly be racialized because of the idea of virus or disease as “invisible.” During crises, it is common for the public to look for a scapegoat for the issue at hand; transforming the fear into a fear of the “carrier” or “X” people. For Ebola, it was people from West African countries; now its people from Asian countries with labels like the Chinese virus. Racialized language has often been used to anchor the fears of the public. In these moments, it is important to use unifying language to combat those narratives and emphasize that the goal of local government is to keep the collective community safe by appealing to the community’s sense of higher altruism. It’s critical to emphasize that this is a collective issue with disproportionate impact on communities of color. While we must all do our part collectively, the public health response must acknowledge that racial inequities in income, housing and employment put communities at color more at risk for contacting the disease and not getting the care they need to survive.

At Living Cities, we’ve reflected on what it looks like to interrupt the harm of the impact of the stereotypes and stigmas that are born during moments like these. At this moment, we are seeing similar patterns in the racialization of our Asian communities.

For further resourcing and language on how to address this harm, click here to learn more from our interrupting violence resource.

Racial bias and stigma can have economic impacts. During the Ebola outbreak, parallel to the health concerns, the stigma and stereotypes caused people to stop patronizing West African owned businesses. Due to COVID19, local Chinese Restaurants across the country are experiencing a decline in business due to the racialization of the virus.

For further resourcing on how your city can support small businesses in this moment, check out this growing list of resources from across the country that we are compiling. Effective responses must address the economic health of communities in order to make them more resilient.

Lead with humanity. It is critical to empathize with your community, to center their humanity and the intersections of their collective reality. Address community fears before hitting them with all of the facts. In my past work, I came to understand that presenting the facts about the virus first was not sufficient for engaging people. It is important to acknowledge the real fears and anxieties that people are dealing with so that there is cognitive space to hear the facts and recommendations that are necessary to share to keep the public safe. It is important to name the dynamics at play in the public response and to call out when those public fears are rooted in racial bias versus fact.

Trusted outreach to the community is critical. Outreach will be most trusted if it’s coming from people that the community can identify with and trust. If you don’t have someone that fits that description, now may be the moment to ask why? And what you can do to form such trusted relationships now.

Typically government messaging comes from a senior person, but during the Ebola outreach we focused on disseminating messages through the people with the most community credibility. We created a database of staff at all levels and noted the community to which they had a connection. We then developed a quick and simple training on messaging and deployed staff to the communities where they would be welcomed as a credible voice regardless of their position and title. Focusing on relationships rather than hierarchy can be the critical difference in a public health emergency so the science can guide our actions.

We must continue to center the needs of communities of color. We created specific outreach plans to reassure the West African community in New York that they were not alone. We scheduled in-person visits between City Leaders and the West African communities in New York City as signs of solidarity. This created the foundation for relationships based on trust that lasted well beyond that time. In this time where physical distancing is critical to fighting the virus, we must find novel ways to build and strengthen our community and social bonds.

Think about how to use this moment to create lasting, equitable infrastructure. Although it’s difficult in the middle of a crisis to think beyond this moment, we must push ourselves to. How do we use this moment to create infrastructure that is better equipped to respond to crisis equitably? How do we simultaneously hold the acknowledgement that people of color are constantly in crisis and that this is a moment that is amplifying systemic vulnerability and inequity that is real and felt daily by our low-income communities and people of color?

During the Ebola outreach with the West African community, our office was able to make a collective decision to procure food from West African restaurants to help account for the sales they were losing. We were able to use our decision making power in the moment to provide immediate relief to small business owners and their staff. How can you use your decision-making as an act of economic solidarity? These moments can open up the space to have more conversations about procurement policy and help diversify procurement processes that can then be normalized later on.

In these moments of crisis, front line responders actually have greater decision making authority and discretion. Due to the nature of the emergency, they can bypass normal bureaucracy and can use that power to change precedents.

For some lessons on how we’ve decolonized our lunches by diversifying our procurement at Living Cities, read this blog series.

This is a disease whose response is separating us from one another. We must remember that physical distancing doesn’t mean that we have to be socially disconnected. We should make sure we aren’t succumbing to those who are hoping to uphold racial divisions. In moments like these, it’s imperative to defend against those who will use this moment to roll back on the progress we’ve made. Instead of further separating us, we have the opportunity to use our power to advance racial equity that will improve and save lives.

To continue this conversation in dialogue with us:

Read our Invitation to Center Race in Government Responses to COVID-19

Consider joining an upcoming Closing the Gaps webinar to connect with a community of peers who are navigating a shared crisis, ground in a set of values that can inform a racial equity-centered approach to crisis response and learn a little more about the Network as a potential space for public servants to build relationships within and across cities and deepen their racial equity work now and in the future.


For more resources, check out our recent blog on Ideas and Resources for How Cities Can Attack the COVID-19 Crisis.

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