By Dan Frankel
The summer of 2020 has been about two things: inequality and Covid-19.
Many of us have found ourselves back out on streets, with masks on our faces and protest signs in our hands. Black and brown people should not have to fear for their lives at traffic stops. Our prison system should not be churning people of color through, drawing them in on minor offenses and a cash bail system, and then pulling them back again and again through a broken parole system.
But “Black Lives Matter” is about more than the senseless loss of life that has come at the hands of law enforcement or the relentless cycle of the justice system, because Black lives are also disproportionately being lost in hospitals, nursing homes and private homes.
If you are person of color in Allegheny County, which I represent in the state House, you are more than twice as likely as a white person to contract COVID-19. You are also far less likely to be tested. County data also shows that Black people are more than three times more likely to be hospitalized and three times as likely to be admitted to intensive care.
These numbers are both shocking and not surprising.
Individuals in disadvantaged communities are more likely to be essential workers and less likely to have sick leave or reliable health care. They are more likely to live in multi-generational homes and have less access to accurate information about prevention and treatment of this virus. Our shameful minimum wage leaves countless families on the edge of financial disaster, unable to weather a sudden expense or a drop in income for even a couple of weeks.
Language barriers, lack of internet access and lack of outreach to disabled Pennsylvanians have all created additional obstacles for Pennsylvanians working to navigate this crisis. A looming housing crisis threatens to set back many families’ hard-won economic progress by decades.
Health disparities are nothing new for marginalized communities, and every time a health threat hits this country or this state, it is those communities that will be hit first, and hit hardest.
In 1918, the Spanish Flu attacked Pittsburgh in a similarly unequal way, but the groups affected were different. A 1999 study in Carnegie Mellon University’s “Sloping Hall Review” found that the city’s Jewish hospital saw a disproportionate spike in the number of deaths in 1918 and 1919, and the Jewish orphanage saw a corresponding spike in the number of children sent there during that time period.
History shows another pattern for historically disadvantaged groups when a health crisis hits that is familiar to Jewish people everywhere: a spike in hatred.
As the Plague swept across Europe in the 14th century, wiping out half the population, it was the Jewish people who were blamed and, as a result, massacred, tortured and persecuted.
But now, we have the benefit of history to guide us.
Last week, the COVID-19 Response Task Force for Health Disparity, created by Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, with community leaders from across the state, released a report detailing how the pandemic is affecting vulnerable populations and what the state can do to address those effects.
The resulting recommendations cover the crucial areas of housing, criminal justice, food insecurity, health disparities and economic opportunities during the pandemic.
While many of the recommendations can be instituted by state and local health departments and other officials, several related legislative items are already collecting dust in the committees of the General Assembly.
I was not surprised to see two of my bills on the list: extending civil rights protections to LGBTQ people and strengthening our hate crimes laws to remove devastating barriers that interfere with the ability of Pennsylvanians to get help when they need it.
Another measure that could quickly mitigate an issue that disproportionally harms vulnerable populations is Rep. Jake Wheatley’s bill to enact a driver’s license restoration program. That measure would restore mobility to many marginalized Pennsylvanians when they desperately need it.
Countless bills would increase assistance thresholds so that a curveball like having a sick family member does not change the course of a generation of lives.
In July, I co-chaired a policy hearing on health disparities during the pandemic. I was joined by two of my fellow Democrats, Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Stephen Kinsey, and Welcoming Caucus Chair Joe Hohenstein, both of who represent Philadelphia in the state House.
While the statistics were stark, I was heartened to see a commitment from state and county health officials to understand and address these disparities. Unlike in 1918, we in Pennsylvania don’t have to depend on incomplete hospital records to determine how different groups are being affected by COVID-19. Our state is prioritizing inclusive data collection, so that we can identify inequality and root it out.
This year will go down as one of the most painful in our state’s history as we collectively take stock of how deeply systemic racism and inequality infect our experience as Pennsylvanians.
But it is also an opportunity, a chance to address these issues head-on, so that when we look back, it can also be seen as a time of tremendous growth and progress.
The choice is ours.
State Rep. Dan Frankel, a Democrat, represents the Pittsburgh-based 23rd House District. He writes from Harrisburg.