In April, Governor Whitmer signed an executive order creating the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. The task force is acting in an advisory capacity to the governor and studies the causes of racial disparities in the impact of COVID-19 and recommends actions to immediately address such disparities and the historical and systemic inequities that underlie them.
There are two Spartans on the task force. Debra Furr-Holden is an epidemiologist and the associate dean for Public Health Integration at Michigan State University and the director of the Flint Center for Health Equity Solutions. Randy Rasch is professor and dean of the MSU College of Nursing.
“When we were looking at the coronavirus and the pandemic in Michigan, we recognized that African-Americans, who are 14 percent of our population, were overrepresented in terms of infection with the COVID-19 disease and deaths from it at about 40 percent,” says Rasch.
“The thing that I appreciate the most about the task force is, one, the work was already afoot,” adds Furr-Holden. “There was already work underway to deal with racial, ethnic, and other vulnerable and marginalized population disparities. We have a lot of groups and a lot of segments of our population in Michigan that are at excess risk for not getting basic primary care and preventive services.
“What we've seen during COVID-19 is an amplification effect. So COVID-19 was not the beginning of health disparities for Michigan or the nation. It unveiled some very important underlying both social and political determinants to health and has given us an opportunity to identity targets for intervention so we can have people experience health and access to healthcare as a right and not a privilege that's based on economics or race or ethnicity or any other type of status.”
“One of the things that the primary care work group is also looking at is who are those trusted members in the community who can work with an understanding of how people are actually living and think creatively how to do social distancing, how to do the hand-washing, and do all those things that we take for granted that are recommended by CDC that are a challenge for the folks who we're really trying to work with,” says Rasch. “We want to identify the trusted folks in a community who can also really get that message across,” Rasch says.
“We have an opportunity before us,” adds Furr-Holden. “I feel like as a nation and as a global community, we are at our most vulnerable right now. The virus has taken a toll on everybody independent of race, economics, gender, and gender identity. This has just made us all very vulnerable and in some respects, has allowed us to understand, see, process, and digest and almost be forced to confront the world that we live in. Fundamentally, we know that we don't live in a world where opportunity for health and growth and development is realized equally and equitably by all people.
“A lot of us have now had to confront that that is not actually the society that we live in either at a national level or at a global level. Some of us sort of knew this and have had different lived experiences that speak to it, but now it's become inescapable. So I really just encourage people to use this opportunity while we are in this period of modified operations and people are at home and almost forced to digest and consume media and other things that are happening not to be overwhelmed by it, but to really say, ‘Okay. If I didn't see it or understand it before, I can see it and understand it now. What can I do and who can I be as a champion for a world that really works for everybody?’
“For many of us on the front lines of healthcare, this has always been our mission. That health is something that people experience as a right and not as a privilege. In a nation as rich and as capable and innovative as ours, I think we should be global leaders in developing and implementing a world that works for everyone. I encourage people to stay safe and continue to practice all the protocols. I remind people we are in the middle of the pandemic. It is far from over. There is an opportunity before us to really just now confront some of our gaps in having health and healthcare be something that is a right and not a privilege.”
“I think the lesson that we can really learn while we, as Debra said, are sheltered in and have the time is to reflect on who we are as human beings and members of the human race and that we really are connected to each other,” says Rasch. And that when the most marginalized are doing well, we probably all do much better. We're connected in ways that are really important. I think this is a great time to revisit that. We've had two horrible things happen in our country in the last several weeks, and some of it has been very distressing. You can lose hope, but there are glimmers that should make us all feel hope for what's possible if we work collectively to address these issues.”