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COVID-19 shedding light on racial, healthcare, poverty disparities

Posted October 13, 2020 5:00 a.m. EDT

Community Action Agencies are doing their best to address the continuing needs of North Carolina's most vulnerable populations, but people in poverty continue to have to make tough decisions about their health and their livelihood in addition to dealing with a pandemic. (Photo Courtesy of North Carolina Community Action Association)

This article was written for our sponsor, North Carolina Community Action Association.

COVID-19 has impacted people across the globe, but in America and in North Carolina, the disease is disproportionately affecting minority and impoverished communities.

Despite making up just 9.6 percent of North Carolina's population, Hispanics accounted for 44 percent of the state's COVID-19 cases by June 2020 according to a report by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Additionally, North Carolina has the 15th highest poverty rate in the country and many of those facing poverty live in rural and/or minority communities. According to a study by UNC Public Policy, COVID-19 impacts North Carolina's poorest counties at a disproportionate rate, especially in the northeast. Northeast communities are more rural and rely on farming and agriculture (where workers are typically in close quarters or proximity to one another) for economic sustainability. Nine of the top 10 counties with the highest rates of probable mortality post infection are located in eastern North Carolina.

Racial, healthcare and income disparities existed before the onset of COVID-19, but the lingering pandemic has only exacerbated these inequalities.

"COVID-19 has certainly shone a bright light on disparities that already exist racially and economically. What we have found and what I think many people have realized, as disheartening as it is, is this was to be expected," said Patricia Beier, executive director of Wayne Action Group for Economic Solvency, Inc., a local Community Action agency. "There are already disparities related to access to and quality of healthcare for communities of color and this is just emphasizing the disproportionality. Communities of color are more likely to be impacted by COVID-19, not because of biological or genetic factors or predisposition to the disease, but because of circumstance and all of the disparities that already existed."

Created by President Lyndon B. Johnson after his signing of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, Community Action Agencies are a national group of non-profit organizations that strive to end poverty. Local agencies administer several services and programs for low-income individuals and their families, the unemployed, and the working poor. Resources are focused on self-sufficiency and case managers help individuals and families with things like child care, transportation, weatherization of homes, employment and more.

Community Action agencies in North Carolina like WAGES have been working to close economic and access gaps for the impoverished long before COVID-19 hit and are doing what they can to pivot amidst current circumstances. In recent months for example, local agencies have turned their transportation vehicles into food delivery trucks that disperse food boxes to citizens in rural communities.

In a current COVID-19 world that is homebound for the time being, it also raises questions like what happens when you don't have a liveable home or worse yet, no home at all? What happens if you can't get access to food or healthcare? How do you work from home if your job is on a farm or in a factory?

"A factor that impacts the positive COVID-19 rates for people in communities of color is oftentimes they work essential jobs. They're the essential workers who don't have the luxury of necessarily taking time off," said Beier. "They come into work sick, they don't have access to healthcare or health insurance. People in poverty don't have the luxury of working from home — they're on the farms, in factories, in service industry jobs that have helped keep propelling our nation forward. They don't have a choice between getting paid or being sick."

"Service industry jobs are occupied by folks who, in large part, represent the low wealth populations in our state and country," added Bryan Duncan, executive director at I-CARE, Inc., another local Community Action agency.

Duncan emphasized that many of the disparities that are being exacerbated because of COVID-19 exist due to systemic racism.

"Everything that I see currently happening goes back to systemic, structural and institutional racism," he said. "I think until we really deal with that — we've got to grapple with that to the point where we can truly understand history, and then we can ask how we can rectify it. You can't tuck it away in the corner and hope that it does not peek out or it just goes away."

Duncan talked a lot about the preexisting healthcare and education gaps in minority and low-income communities that are only growing larger as COVID-19 continues to spread.

"One of the fallacies of our system that has been more exposed is that healthcare is often tied to employment. As the pandemic forced a lot of people into joblessness, that creates an issue," said Duncan.

In talking about the digital divide — the chasm between those who have access to the internet, adequate technology and the know-how to use it and those who do not — Duncan pointed out education disparities. With schools operating on a mostly remote system for the time being and libraries, coffee shops and other WiFi spots being closed down, this creates a problem for children in rural communities trying to learn remotely.

"It's impractical to think that a child can adequately learn on a smartphone," said Duncan.

Beier said that for people living in poverty, every day is a struggle and the pandemic has added insult to injury. Community Action Agencies are doing their best to address the continuing needs of North Carolina's most vulnerable populations, but people in poverty continue to have to make tough decisions about their health and their livelihood in addition to dealing with a pandemic.

"As we move forward through COVID-19 and anticipate the next coronavirus wave that might come through, we have to be better prepared," said Duncan. "And in order to be better prepared, we have to start to dismantle systemic inequalities and racism that exist in this country."

This article was written for our sponsor, North Carolina Community Action Association.

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