Apr 14 Coronavirus underscores need for healing America’s racial divisions
This op-ed was originally published on SF Chronicle on April 14, 2020.
The reports of racial disparities among COVID-19 victims should not surprise us. African Americans and Latinos have typically experienced disproportionate exposure to a range of health issues.
For example, African Americans are twice as likely to die of heart disease as their white counterparts. Consider that Latinos are 50% more likely than whites to die of diabetes or liver disease. These issues are not determined by biology, but by a history of policies that exclude, inflict harm and make it more difficult to stay healthy.
In communities of color, trauma and crisis are commonplace, and as result, many African American and Latino families have learned to work and live in persistently traumatic and stressful environments. Let me say that again: persistent traumatic stress environment (PTSE), not post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
There is an important distinction. First, PTSE focuses on the root causes of health disparities, like food insecurity, lack of housing and medical care. PTSD diagnoses only a “disorder” resulting from a past experience. African American and Latino communities often experience greater stress, anxiety, and depression because of the lack of safety, economic opportunities and basic housing.
Persistent stress has a negative impact on learning, healthy behavior and mental health. Public health officials also have concluded that your ZIP code is a greater predictor of life expectancy than your biology. Where you live directly affects your health from exposure to air pollution, access to parks, fresh foods and medical care.
These conditions in black and brown neighborhoods create the “underlying” health conditions that make COVID-19 so deadly.
I suspected that my close friend Brian was infected with COVID-19. He called me and complained that he was having problems breathing. He needed food, and reached out for help. When I dropped by, he looked awful, so I told him he needed to see a doctor.
He replied, “Naw, bro, I’m good. I don’t have insurance, but this ginger and echinacea water will do the trick.” He was wrong, and a day later, I took him to a clinic. He couldn’t be tested for the virus because the clinic didn’t have the tests. Brian is fine now, but how many others are in his same position?
The fundamental crisis we are facing is not COVID-19, nor is it the racial disparities. Our real crisis is our capacity to respond in ways that heal all of us. Now, the social trauma that has ravaged the health and well-being of black and brown communities has crept into corporate boardrooms, and suburban country clubs. Now we are all bound together by an inescapable trauma, a scar and wound that will leave an indelible mark on America’s flesh.
My friend, Brian has bounced back, but it wasn’t the ginger and echinacea water that healed him. It was his community bringing him food, picking up his medicine, calling him to check in.
Can our community’s response to Brian guide our nation’s future in a post-COVID world? When we finally look back on this crisis, will we have the courage to address racial inequality and remove the barriers that create persistent traumatic stress environments in the first place?
This pandemic is an inflection point for our country to pause, reflect and pivot toward a nation of healing, belonging and care. We have an opportunity to come to grips with the consequences of our past, and an opportunity for healing the future. Everyone will require policies and resources directed toward healing.
Here’s how to do it:
We will need to create a national day of healing because it’s important to memorialize those whom we have lost, and it’s important to restore our sense of well-being as a nation. A day of healing means acknowledging harm caused by racism, sexism and homophobia, as well as opportunities to restore trust, and strengthen bonds and community connections.
We need universal access to quality health care, and we will need to pay particular attention to mental health. We will need to transform our schools so that well-being, healing and mental health are as important as academic instruction.
Most important, we will need a new conversation in America about our belonging and our connectedness. We need to heal our racial and political divides.
What we need now is the courage to correct everything that stands against unity. This pandemic is our best reset button, and a cosmic opportunity to re-imagine our society, where all of us are bound joyously together by the principles of love and justice.
Shawn Ginwright is professor of Education, and African American Studies at San Francisco State University and chairman of the Board of Directors for the California Endowment. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Pivot: A Dramatic Shift Toward a Healing Centered Society.”