COVID-19 racial disparities in Ypsilanti expose inequities across Washtenaw County

African-American Washtenaw County residents, particularly those in the 48197 and 48198 ZIP codes, are experiencing COVID-19 in a dramatically different way from their white peers.


"A white activist friend and I are working on a project where we're comparing our Facebook timelines," says Yodit Mesfin Johnson, executive director of Washtenaw County nonprofit NEW. "Mine is filled with black diagnosis, death, and despair."


Ypsilanti community activist Bryan Foley says he knows more than 20 people who have died from COVID-19, including a friend he's known all his life.


"That's not happening (only) in Detroit. That's happening right here in Ypsilanti to people I personally know," Foley says.


Recently released data from the Washtenaw County Health Department found that while only 29% of the county's population lives in the 48197 and 48198 ZIP codes, 44% of confirmed cases are from those ZIP codes. Additionally, 48% of residents who have been hospitalized due to the virus are black, despite the fact that only 12% of county residents are black.


Those numbers shine a spotlight on larger disparities in the county, and local activists are working to turn the despair of the current moment into social change in the long run.


Shining a light on health inequities


Jimena Loveluck, health officer with the Washtenaw County Health Department, says the department's report on COVID-19 is in line with what the county already knew about health disparities in the community.


"The health department has been very active in working with community members and community leaders to address health inequities in our county," Loveluck says. "We're very much building on a lot of the work we've already been doing, particularly shining a light on health equity or inequities in the county and bringing around resources in response."

Jimena Loveluck.

The health department's statement on the disheartening data doesn't beat around the bush, naming "structural and environmental racism" as a root cause.


African-Americans in every part of the United States have been harder hit by the virus than their white peers. That holds true in Washtenaw County, where black residents are more likely to have underlying health conditions like asthma and diabetes that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 while also being less likely to have access to quality health care.


The health department statement noted that poverty is a risk factor in a pandemic because people living in lower-income communities tend to live closer together, which makes transmission easier. Additionally, black and Latinx residents are more likely to work in service, production, and transportation jobs that don't lend themselves to telecommuting or even taking paid time off.


Ypsilanti resident Darryl Johnson is the executive director of Mentor 2 Youth but also works as a supervisor for A-Ride, a paratransit service of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. He says he can isolate himself in his office and is more concerned about his drivers, though he appreciates steps his supervisors have taken to screen passengers to make sure they're not actively showing any signs of respiratory illness.

Darryl Johnson.

"My wife's first cousin was a Detroit police captain who died (from COVID-19), and that's when I started taking this seriously," he says. "I came into the office to make sure everyone understood this is not a joke, that they needed to keep their distance in the office and be mindful."


Challenges and solutions


In light of the situation, a number of conversations have been convened to address the topic of COVID-19 and social justice in Ypsilanti, including a NEW webinar called "Centering Justice: A Washtenaw Community Conversation about COVID-19" that attracted more than 330 participants.


Alize Asberry Payne.The top concern for most of these conversations is getting information and resources to the most vulnerable. One challenge for everyone facing the pandemic is knowing who is a credible source and what information is accurate.


"We're working with community partners to make sure we have information that is going out through correct channels and people feel the information is coming from sources they feel are credible," says Alize Asberry Payne, Washtenaw County racial equity officer, who is working with the health department on messaging about COVID-19. "We're making sure those messages are tailored and accessible."


Some of the messages that activists and health officials want to get out include dispelling the myth that African-Americans and young people are less vulnerable to the virus, that praying is good but doesn't replace social distancing, and dispelling conspiracy theories that encourage young people to rebel against social distancing and stay-home orders.

Bryan Foley.

Foley isn't waiting for the government to step up and put out public service announcements that target the local African-American community. He has been creating videos with Ypsilanti residents that many people know and trust, like Pastor George Waddles Jr. of Ypsi's Second Baptist Church and local attorney Erane Washington, and then posting them to Facebook.


"Many people who are trying to address our community don't know our community," he says. "People need to hear from respected voices."


Mesfin Johnson calls the videos "brilliant."


"If Bryan can make those from his living room on the South Side of Ypsi, surely we can get printed material out," she says. She adds that text messaging, posters, and other culturally-relevant content needs to be pushed out immediately.


Asberry Payne says Michigan Gov. Whitmer's message of "Stay Home Stay Safe" is fantastic, but that it's "not practical advice for some of our community who are working in essential services, like healthcare or grocery stores."


Those workers need good information about what they can do to reduce their risk of contracting the disease. But they also need resources that back up current health recommendations, such as stockpiling two weeks' worth of food or wearing masks while conducting tasks where social distancing is difficult.


"Social safety net providers have increased funding and resources so they can do things like put in bulk orders for basic household necessities the county doesn't normally supply, like toilet paper and cleaning supplies," Asberry Payne says. If they don't have to hunt through stores for those items, "it keeps people at home and stops the spread of infections," she says.


Lessons for the future


As various leaders and community members discuss the social determinants that have led to the current health disparities, they are drawing lessons that will inform the way they operate in the future.


In his work with Mentor 2 Youth, Johnson is working on a project to send text messages with vital COVID-19 messages to all the nonprofit's contacts. He says he hopes the sense of community and mutual aid people are experiencing during the COVID-19 outbreak will continue and grow.


Foley also points to a sense of community as a good that has come out of something terrible.


"We need to get back to neighbors calling on neighbors and become a community again," Foley says. "It's terrible, but not everything is doom and gloom. You can choose to use social platforms to inform, uplift, and tell jokes."


Mesfin Johnson says it shouldn't have taken these tragic statistics to wake people up to the racial disparities in the community and how health outcomes are directly impacted by issues such as affordable housing, food access, and lack of a living wage.


"If we don't have to pay a premium for telemedicine, we never should have had to pay it," Mesfin Johnson says. "If you tell me we can get food and figure out how to meet children where they are, why were we not doing so before now? Why does it take a pandemic to dismantle systems that oppress black, brown, vulnerable, and poor citizens? It would be a shame to go back to the status quo, and I question the leadership of anyone who thinks that's what we should do."

For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Darryl Johnson photo by Sarah Rigg. Alize Asberry Payne and Jimena Loveluck photos courtesy of Washtenaw County. Yodit Mesfin Johnson photo by Heather Nash Photography. Bryan Foley photo courtesy of Nate Frazier.

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