We’re right to be worried about racial disparities in COVID-19. Now we need to fix it | Opinion

NUTLEY, NJ - FEBRUARY 28: A researcher works in a lab that is developing testing for the COVID-19 coronavirus at Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

By Jill Sunday Bartoli

The current observations and data about over-representation of African-Americans and Latinos in the COVID-19 death statistics cause us to think about why this is happening.

We can choose to narrowly view this data and blame the victims for their poor health—diabetes, hypertension, poor diet—or we can take a broader view that includes context, social interaction, policy choices and what we have learned about ecological systems.

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Old ways of thinking are hard to change. Think of how long it took for people to give up the notion that the sun revolves around the earth.

Think of how hard it is to view student learning apart from numbers on a test. Think of how easy it is to assume that people experiencing homelessness are lazy or crazy. And think of how easy it is to blame individuals for their poverty and poor health.

The alternative to a narrow way of thinking is to look more broadly at the context—the society and the community where individuals and families live, grow and learn. An ecological systems view invites us to consider how the laws and policies we have created to manage and regulate our society affect the individual and family.

How is the system working for all of the different groups of people in our society? Who is flourishing and who is not?  What are the policies that determine who succeeds and who does not, and who creates these policies?

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Perhaps the most important contribution of an ecological view is the opening up of possibilities for understanding and learning.  So many questions– and so many possible solutions– open up when we consider alternatives to a linear, cause and effect, static view of the world that ends with blaming the victim.

Concerning the overrepresentation of African-Americans and Latinos in the current death rate from COVID-19,  we can ask how the food deserts in their communities and the lack of access to nutritious food have affected their health.

We can ask how the lack of affordable housing and family sustaining wages have made them more susceptible to poor health and experiencing homelessness. We can ask about the effects of negative assumptions and biases in education, employment, healthcare and criminal justice systems on those who are dying in tragic numbers.

We have an opportunity this time to take the broader, more inclusive, ecological view that allows us to create new ideas, new policies and new ways of thinking about building a more just and democratic society.  Let’s do it.

Jill Sunday Bartoli writes from Carlisle, Pa.