April 9, 2020

Equity Blog: Why equity still matters during a pandemic

A bicyclist rides down Tom McCall Waterfront Park on a wet spring day in Portland, Oregon. Blossoming cherry trees on to the left and the Willamette River to the right.

On the street where I live in Portland, neighbors within two blocks have shared an electronic document that lists our names and contact information, resources we have access to and can share, and a way to notify each other if we need or can provide help for things like household supplies or trips to the grocery store. The collective caring has been incredible and it feels so much better to know that we are in it together.

Our collective health depends on our individual knowledge and actions. What we do for each other matters, and a vulnerable link in our shared chain can break the protective barrier keeping the virus at bay and make us all vulnerable. I so appreciate Gov. Kate Brown’s executive decision to require us to “Stay Home, Save Lives.”

It’s pretty normal in a crisis to go directly to what is known and familiar. For more than 100 years, what was known and familiar in philanthropy was funding mainstream groups that had little or no connection to communities made most vulnerable by systemic racism and other forms of oppression. It’s really just been in the last decade that mainstream philanthropy has begun to more deeply understand equity concepts and more equitably fund organizations serving communities that are also the most vulnerable during pandemics. But circumstances of today will call on philanthropy to make a critical choice to redouble its efforts to fund equitably.

Eleven years ago, Oregon and the rest of the nation faced a similar, but less severe, pandemic: H1N1. When that pandemic was over, public health researchers studied population-based disease outcomes. What did we learn? How has that learning changed what we do now?

One study in particular sought to understand the racial disparities in exposure, susceptibility and access to health care that contributed to higher rates of H1N1 illness and death for people of color. The study found that people of color were more likely to live in crowded living conditions. They made up more of the service and wage labor force and were less likely to be able to work from home, thus increasing their exposure. They were more likely to have a chronic condition that increased susceptibility to the virus. And, finally, they were less likely to have health insurance coverage and experienced greater systemic barriers to accessing care, from lack of plain-language information and interpreters to differential treatment.

This should all sound familiar and not be surprising. New York Times magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones shared a tweet stream highlighting the disproportional impact from the novel coronavirus on Black people in places where officials aggregate the data by race. We haven’t learned the lessons from H1N1, yet.

What would be surprising is if we don’t use the opportunity we have in front of us to act based on lessons learned about barriers to equitable outcomes from the past. When I was an organizational development consultant, I once worked with a nonprofit whose mission was to prepare a coastal community for the potential “Big One” earthquake and subsequent tsunami. This volunteer group was highly organized: They had a team of ham radio operators, heavy equipment (think Caterpillar) drivers and even a team responsible for rounding up lost pets. They had thought of everything, almost. What they hadn’t planned for was the small but growing group of Latinx people in their community who were fairly segregated by geography, income, language and culture. This community didn’t have information about the potential natural disaster in their own languages, didn’t know about the emergency preparedness efforts — and didn’t know where to go to be safe and accounted for, should a tsunami strike.

Unfortunately, many of the conditions that existed during the H1N1 pandemic haven’t changed. In a society that remains segregated by income and race, it’s easier to forget those whom our usual approaches (unintentional or intentional) make invisible. These systems have yet to truly address the challenges and barriers of a mere decade ago that communities of color still face. To their credit, the coastal volunteer group, once they realized their oversight, acted quickly to get linguistically appropriate information to their Latinx community members in culturally appropriate ways. Is that happening now in your community?

In the future, let’s hope that the data show that equitable outcomes were achieved even during the coronavirus that is, in itself, indiscriminate. I, for one, do not want to look back at data from today’s crisis and ask why we didn't act upon what we already knew. Meyer’s vision is a flourishing and equitable Oregon. We will only flourish if all of us, our collective Oregon, stays healthy. That’s why we will continue our commitment to prioritizing funding to our partners serving communities that remain the most vulnerable. The collective is only as strong as its most vulnerable member. The knowledge is there.

Let’s now act. Because we’re all in it. Together.

Our friends at Racial Equity Tools have created a list of Racial Equity and Social Justice Resources specific to the response to COVID-19.

— Carol