Across Michigan, communities of color and other vulnerable populations are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 – and in Washtenaw County, a special task force is working on addressing that disparity and underlying systemic problems.
Alize Asberry Payne, the county's racial equity officer, announced the formation of a COVID-19 task force for people of color in late April. Its aim is to address current community concerns and examine long-existing racial disparities that contribute to people of color bearing the brunt of the pandemic. The task force's members represent 32 different businesses, nonprofits, institutions, and sectors in the county.
"It's an effort to make sure that local leaders have a mechanism to provide information in real time so that we can address emerging needs in our communities on the ground," Payne says. "It's about making sure that the folks that are most deeply connected and rooted in those spaces have a way to help shape policy and exchange ideas and resources."
It's an urgent undertaking considering that Black people make up 12% of the county's population, but account for over 40% of confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections. Payne says that disparate impact is happening because of residents of color's role in the essential workforce, housing density, and the county's history of redlining, to name just a few reasons.
"We're seeing disparate impacts in terms of education, ability to access technology, and in the severity of illness when people are getting sick. And, unfortunately, we're seeing disparate impacts in terms of deaths," Payne says.
Since the task force's formation, members have been putting boots on the ground, mobilizing to address the immediate needs of highly impacted communities in real time. Efforts have included helping people who are food insecure, distributing personal protective equipment, and ensuring that people have access to testing and medical care.
"Issues around broadband access and disruptions in financial stability have also been huge concerns in our community," Payne says.
Payne says that although the task force was formed to specifically address disparity in the pandemic's impacts on communities of color, that work is part of the county's overall, broader response to inequity. Anyone who reached out to Payne's office for help received it with no barriers to access.
While the task force was initially busy assessing and triaging the community's needs and addressing them in the spring, its members were able to shift gears a bit this summer. In recent months more conversations have centered around addressing some of the longer-standing, historical disparities facing marginalized communities.
"Disparities in education is an example," Payne says. "It wasn't created by COVID-19, but the gaps in our county have been spotlighted by it."
Closing such gaps will now be much more possible, says task force member Crystal Campbell.
Campbell is also the communications and operations manager for the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. She says Payne has pulled together a wide swath of community members on the task force to make lasting change.
Campbell adds that the board of commissioners has identified roughly a dozen priorities that range from community engagement to budget issues. A significant part of her job is to make sure that those concerns remain on task.
"Equity is one of those priorities," she says. "We will be looking at how we can incorporate equity into each of the [board of commissioners'] priorities."
Board members are also in regular communication with the Racial Equity Office to ensure that equity stays front and center. This benefits the county not just in planning response strategies for a potential second wave of the pandemic. It will also help them plan for the long-term resiliency of the county's hardest-hit communities.
In the immediate future, Payne, Campbell, and other task force members are pushing to prevent the possibility of a double pandemic as flu season approaches. The team is now actively working on encouraging people to get a flu shot in order to lessen the potential impact on Washtenaw's already hard-hit marginalized populations.
"I'm telling everyone I know to get a flu shot, because we are seriously concerned about seeing a co-infection of COVID and seasonal flu and trying to prevent both," Payne says. "We don't know what's going to happen, but we are preparing for the worst-case scenario in hopes of the best outcomes for our community."
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Alize Asberry Payne photo courtesy of Washtenaw County. Crystal Campbell photo courtesy of Crystal Campbell.