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Efforts outlined to bridge Chicago’s racial divide in coronavirus-related deaths

The strategy focuses, at least initially, on three hard-hit neighborhoods: Austin, Auburn-Gresham and South Shore. It includes expanded testing and 60,000 free masks, as well as three 90-minute telephone town hall meetings.

The Chicago skyline, viewed from the inbound Eisenhower Expressway.
The city is trying to address the racial gap in deaths from the coronavirus pandemic.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Two weeks after declaring a “public health red alarm,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday outlined the immediate steps she has taken to prevent the coronavirus from continuing to kill African Americans at a rate four times higher than whites.

The mayor’s “hyper-local, data-informed” strategy will be focused, at least initially, on three hard-hit neighborhoods: Austin, Auburn-Gresham and South Shore.

The unprecedented outreach by Lightfoot’s so-called “racial equity rapid response teams” includes expanded testing and free distribution of 60,000 masks, 80,000 door hangers and 150,000 postcards.

The goal is to “pro-actively reach” African Americans at greatest risk of contracting the coronavirus because of their age, their underlying health conditions or the fact that they are “essential” employees who cannot afford to stay safe at home.

To spread the message, the city is holding three, 90-minute telephone town hall meetings, one in each of the targeted neighborhoods. South Shore is first — on Thursday from 4:30 to 6 p.m. — followed by Auburn Gresham from 10:30 a.m. to noon on Saturday and Austin from 12:30 to 2 p.m.

Targeted public service announcements on radio and television are also planned, once again using comedy as an education vehicle. And rapid response teams operating out of the city’s emergency operations center are talking about “solutions to food insecurity” on the South Side.

When Lightfoot first sounded the alarm about the racial disparity, Africans Americans who comprise 30 percent of Chicago’s population made up 72 percent of COVID-19 deaths.

Now it’s down to a still-alarming 60% — that’s 287 of Chicago’s 500 deaths, according to Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

The death rate among African Americans in Chicago remains four times higher than it is for whites, the commissioner said.

For a mayor who declared war on poverty before the pandemic, that is simply unacceptable.

“The health disparities that result in high rates of diabetes, heart and respiratory disease are the very conditions that this virus ruthlessly attacks,” the mayor told a City Hall news conference.

Lightfoot said the maps of coronavirus cases concentrated in black neighborhood “illuminated the broken and racist system of inequality that has held these same communities in the grip of poverty for generations” in Chicago.

“That has withheld access to health care, jobs and education. … The very issues that placed incredible burdens on our families before this crisis have only grown exponentially during this crisis — and thrust into high relief how the issues of equity and opportunity are truly matters of life and death,” she said.

“We simply will not stand for that here in Chicago. Not anymore.”

Carlos Nelson, CEO of the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation, said he’s spent the last 3.5 years planning a 60,000-square-foot regional health and wellness center anchored by a full-service health center at 79th and Halsted streets.

“We purchased the building. We’ve had difficulty finding the last of the funds to get this project done. It’s frustrating and it’s sobering to think how many families would have been supported — and possibly lives saved — if we’d been able to stand up this Auburn-Gresham health and wellness center,” Nelson said.

“When this pandemic is over, it is imperative that we as a great community continue to fight other long-standing epidemics — like poverty, like food instability, like little access to health care and other social determinants of health — with the same vigor that we’re fighting right now.”

Darnell Shields, executive director of Austin Coming Together, openly acknowledged that it will be an uphill battle.

“Social determinants of good health are not in our favor. The number of pre-existing health conditions that plague the black community as a result of extreme poverty [and] systemic racism make us more susceptible to the dangers of COVID-19,” Shields said.

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Lightfoot and Arwady were determined to narrow the nine-year gap in life expectancy between black and white Chicagoans.

The so-called “death gap” between people who live downtown compared to parts of the West Side is an even more astounding 16 years.

Her goal now is to “break down silos” of poverty — and establish food delivery systems to impoverished Chicago neighborhoods — in a way that will last long after life in Chicago returns to some semblance of normalcy.