As Coronavirus takes heavy toll on people of color, Harris wants task force to study why and propose fixes
Today, Sen. Kamala Harris of California will introduce legislation creating a task force to scrutinize the racial disparity in health outcomes as the coronavirus pandemic continues to take a heavy and disproportionate toll among African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians. While the COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force Act would focus on addressing the disparate effects of the pandemic on communities of color and how authorities have responded to the virus in these communities, the task force’s findings could set the stage for a much broader examination of longstanding healthcare inadequacies in these communities that the attack of the coronavirus has made apparent to Americans who weren’t previously aware of these. The task force would be set up under the auspices of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Harris said in a statement, “People of color are being infected and dying from coronavirus at astounding rates. This is in part due to persistent lack of access to health care, bias in our health care system, systematic barriers to equal pay and housing, and environmental injustice. […] These inequities will be exacerbated if the federal government fails to provide a tailored response to the unique needs of these communities.”
Examples of the disparities are widespread. In Louisiana, 70% of residents killed by the coronavirus have been African American even though they only make up 32% of the population. In Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County, 75% of coronavirus deaths are among African Americans, who make up only 26% of the population. On the sprawling Navajo Nation, the largest Native reservation by population and territory, deaths from what the Navajo call Dikos Ntsaaígíí-19 have soared so high that, on a per capita basis, the toll is higher than in all but two states.
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Among the 16 co-sponsors of the Harris bill are:
- Sens. Cory Booker
- Michael Bennet
- Bernie Sanders
- Sheldon Whitehouse
- Sherrod Brown
- Tina Smith.
In the House, a companion bill will be introduced by Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois’s 2nd congressional district.
The task force would be required to present weekly reports to Congress and the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the distribution of resources, including personal protective gear, and the disbursement of funds from the CARES Act relief legislation that is providing trillions of dollars to keep the economy from collapsing while businesses are shuttered and tens of millions of people are out of work. Among the task force’s recurring duties would be making recommendations on how to allocate medical resources in a manner than recognizes the disparate racial impacts of the pandemic.
Regular consultation with affected communities, including American Indian tribes that are so often ignored, is a key part of the legislation.
Harris’s proposal sets a deadline for its final report at 90 days after the White House announces that the COVID-19 public emergency is over. It specifies a report that:
(1) describes inequities within the health care system, implicit bias, structural racism, and social determinants of health (including housing, nutrition, education, economic, and environmental factors) that contributed to racial and ethnic health disparities with respect to the COVID–19 pandemic and how these factors contributed to such disparities; (2) examines the initial Federal response to the COVID–19 pandemic and its impact on the racial and ethnic disparities in COVID–19 infection, hospitalization, and death rates; and (3) contains recommendations to combat racial and ethnic disparities in future infectious disease responses, including future COVID–19 outbreaks.
Most importantly, once the COVID-19 task force finishes its job, an Infectious Disease Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force will be established as a permanent successor designed to eliminate racial health disparities. The ultimate effectiveness of both task forces will, of course, depend on whether politicians and activists choose to keep the reports from gathering dust on some shelf, the fate of far too many such projects.
(Crossposted with DailyKos.)