Nine ways to improve health for African Americans in Chicago after COVID-19

Chicago’s black community suffers disproportionately from the underlying health problems that contribute to death from the coronavirus.

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The World Health Organization’s Ottawa Charter lists nine areas where reforms can be made so as to improve public health.

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Chicago’s black community accounts for approximately 70% of all deaths related to COVID-19 in Chicago, though the community represents only 23% of the city’s population.

The most obvious explanation for this is that people who suffer from underlying health issues such as hypertension, diabetes mellitus, obesity and lung diseases are at the highest risk of dying from COVID-19 — and the black community disproportionately suffers from these conditions.

The question for the future, then, is what’s to be done about this? How do we improve overall health for black Chicago?

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A 1986 World Health Organization agreement, the Ottawa Charter, provides a blueprint for promoting community health that could be helpful here. It enumerates nine areas that need to be addressed to develop healthy communities — peace, shelter, education, food, income, a stable eco-system, sustainable resources, social justice and equity.

What might be some concrete steps, guided by this document, that we can take as a city to improve health outcomes in Chicago’s black community?

Peace: Reduce mass incarceration through bail reform and decriminalize drugs. Strengthen efforts to reduce gang violence through existing community-based programs. Expand mental health outreach. Promote ongoing police and community dialogue and engagement.

Shelter: Increase the amount of affordable housing in Chicago. Invest in infrastructure and make sure that all parts of the city have access to safe public transportation, bridges, overpasses and roads.

Education: Continue efforts to support public education and improve graduation rates.

Food: Encourage a more vegetarian or vegan diet — “What would Jesus eat?” Encourage every church to plant an “edible” garden.

Income: Continue to support and advocate for a livable wage, as well as for minority participation in infrastructure and building projects. Impose a Tobin tax — a small tax on short-term currency transactions — on the trading of stock, bonds and futures contracts.

Stable eco-system: Reduce levels of air pollution in Chicago through improved mass transit and the planting of trees. Do a better job of municipal recycling.

Sustainable resources: Encourage solar and wind power efforts, such as solar roofs. Ensure minority participation in the installation of green technology.

Social Justice: Lower the eligibility requirements for Medicaid in Illinois. Improving access to health care is a matter of social justice.

Equity: Continue efforts at affirmative action. Enforce existing laws on minority hiring and access to quality city services.

To be sure, many of these advancements will be a challenge to carry out. Without this kind of systematic reform, however, the health disparities in our city that have become glaringly obvious during this pandemic will continue, always with the same dire consequences.

Dr. Alan Jackson is an assistant professor of medicine and public voices fellow at Rush University.

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