Fighting for Health Equity for Black Women: Progress Is Far from Perfection
For the past two years, Coastal Family Health Center, the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio, and Mississippi Public Health Institute have been working side-by-side—first physically and for the past nine months virtually—with local partners, advocates, and leaders on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to support and strengthen systems that directly and indirectly influence the health of African American mothers, babies, and families. Today, in honor of Black History Month, we stand in solidarity to shed light on the specific and significant health impacts of COVID-19—and the lack of investment in efforts to address health disparities—among African American women.
In 2020, the novel Coronavirus swept through our communities, and as the data clearly shows, ravaged African American communities across the country and along the Gulf Coast. And even now, as we approach the one-year mark of this global pandemic, the Coronavirus is still making headlines every day. Beneath those headlines are some very disturbing and distressing data that reveal the immense health and economic impact COVID-19 has had on African American families and communities.
The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project shows that COVID-19 is claiming the lives of African Americans at nearly twice the rate of their white counterparts. This disparity is a direct result of limited access to health care, safe employment opportunities, affordable housing, and several other issues that have plagued these communities for years. The cumulative toll of COVID-19 is weighing heavily on African American mothers, babies, and families, and it is incumbent on all of us to promote and advance equity in order to improve the health of our entire community.
Black women have been historically resilient. Ida B Wells-Barnett was born into slavery. Lost her parents to yellow fever at age 16. And became the co-owner of Memphis Free Speech and Headlight which covered incidents of racial segregation and inequality. Her perspective was not welcome in the 1890s, so her life was constantly in danger. In spite of that she kept writing, speaking, and organizing for the rest of her life. To this day, African American women are still writing, speaking, organizing, and thriving—even when the odds are stacked against them.
But that doesn’t mean the health and economic needs of African American women don’t deserve to be prioritized. It doesn’t mean that African American women, especially African American mothers, should be left to fend for themselves as the country decides whether it can afford to provide adequate support and relief.
The National Women’s Law Center recently released data indicating roughly 154,000 African American women left the workforce in December 2020, which is the largest one-month drop in their labor force size since the beginning of this pandemic. Even for the African American women who maintain employment, their jobs are often in sectors that put them at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. As the Economic Policy Institute notes in a recent report, African Americans are disproportionately represented in employment in grocery, convenience, and drug stores (14.2%); public transit (26%); trucking, warehouse, and postal service (18.2%); health care (17.5%); and child care and social services (19.3%). Although the work of many African American women has been deemed “essential”, their health has not.
Access to health care also continues to be a persistent problem for African American women. In a 2019 report, the National Partnership for Women and Families noted that nearly 14 percent of African American women are uninsured, compared to eight percent of white women. That number is even higher for low-income women, with nearly one in five being uninsured, and according to the report, African American women in the South have the lowest rates of health insurance coverage among their peers across the country. Sadly, African American women of reproductive age have the biggest coverage disparity, which makes it difficult to have a healthy pregnancy.
In summary, we have a lot of work to do, and the reality is that it will take much more than 28 days of historical reflection or a few conversations about equity to make meaningful change. When citizens, community organizations, and health care institutions work together to share information and resources, coordinate activities, collaborate on solutions and build a network of support, we can make a measurable difference for African American women, babies, and families. By advocating for and creating environments that are healthy, equitable, and understanding, we can ensure African American women and their families have the resources, opportunities, and support they need to live full, healthy lives.
About the Mississippi Public Health Institute
MSPHI is a nonprofit entity established in 2011 to protect and improve the health and well-being of Mississippians, serving as a partner and convener to promote health, improve outcomes and encourage innovations in health systems. We cultivate partnerships aimed at program innovation, health resources, education, applied research, and policy development.
About the Gluf Coast Community Design Studio
GCCDS is a professional service and outreach program of Mississippi State University’s College of Architecture, Art + Design. GCCDS works through close, pragmatic partnerships with local organizations and communities in and beyond the three Mississippi’s coastal counties, putting professional expertise to work in order to shape vibrant and resilient Gulf Coast communities.