COVID-19, Health Disparities and Systemic Racism: How do we respond as people of faith?

April 30, 2020
By: 
Rebecca Linder Blachly

Event sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago's Antiracism Commission
Remarks below by Rebecca Linder Blachly, director, Office of Government Relations
For full coverage of the event and information on other panelists see Episcopal News Service.

COVID-19 is laying bare a reality that many of us have known: the systemic injustices in our society mean that many of the most vulnerable are suffering the most. We are seeing a disproportionate impact on people of color, especially African Americans, around the United States. This may not come as a surprise to those of us who are aware of the staggering inequalities in this country and who witness every day the fact that people of color are often the hardest hit by crises of any kind – natural disasters, economic downturns, and epidemics and pandemics. And it is not only in the U.S. that those living in poverty and with fewer resources are suffering the most: globally, the virus is ravaging communities that were already struggling with poverty, conflict, food insecurity, and persecution. I will focus on what we can do to address these systemic injustices. In particular, I will focus on the role of public policy advocacy and the importance of engaging in the public sphere as a form of addressing injustice.

Advocacy is one of our most powerful tools in transforming our society and our world. Through our advocacy, we can push our government to enact evidence-based policies that will help the most vulnerable and ensure that we have a safety net in place. Advocacy is not the only way to push for change – and it is often more frustrating than satisfying – but we need to remember our obligation not only to speak out against injustice but to take concrete, and sometimes incremental, steps to remedy it.

The Becoming Beloved Community framework, which is The Episcopal Church’s long-term commitment to racial healing, reconciliation, and justice, is helpful here. In that framework, advocacy is one aspect of many different interwoven elements on the way to healing and transformation. “Repairing the Breach in Society and Institutions," asks “what institutions and systems are broken? How will we participate in repair, restoration, and healing of people, institutions, and systems?” Engaging in public policy advocacy is one means of healing and justice-making. Through advocacy, we can challenge long-established policies that perpetuate systemic racism and injustice. We can seek to change legislation that continues to harm communities of color and to seek justice for those communities that have been the most marginalized and discriminated against.

Advocacy means we petition our government. Advocacy means pushing our elected and career government officials to put in place more just, equitable, and humane laws and policies, and doing so again and again. Because it involves politics and political engagement, advocacy is often messy and complex. It involves mobilizing people, building relationships, being clear on what it is you want, and knowing when to compromise even if the compromise falls short of God’s justice. Effecting change through advocacy , requires dogged persistence and faith that we can make things better. I also believe it is essential part of our work as Christians.

Why does advocacy matter? The work my colleagues and I do at the Office of Government Relations focuses on federal level advocacy. Advocacy to the federal government matters for two reasons.

The first is scale. 95% of food assistance funded by the federal government. In the case of this pandemic, the federal government is the only entity that has the scale to begin to be able to address the crisis – more than $2 trillion in funding so far and more is needed.

The second reason for advocacy to the federal government is authority – the federal government has unique authorities that states and municipalities do not have. If we want to have comprehensive immigration reform in this country, we need to engage with Congress.

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic exposes the need for the federal government to intervene wisely: the U.S. government is the only entity that has the massive amount of resources required to help those who are unemployed, who need health insurance, who are facing homeless. The federal government also has the authority to coordinate and lead aspects of the medical response, including on testing and securing appropriate gear and equipment. The Office of Government Relations focuses our advocacy efforts on the federal government, but advocacy at the state and local level can drive important change as well and can put policies in place to combat systemic racism. Municipal governments set policies on schools and have influence on issues relating to food insecurity, neighborhood and community safety and a whole host of other issues.

We know that systemic racism was instituted through policies at all levels of government, whether incarceration or zoning and redlining or eligibility for benefits like the GI bill. So legislative and policy changes also need to be part of the call for racial reconciliation and healing for a more just society moving forward. In some cases, we need to push for policies to redress the harm that was done in the past but the repercussions of which continue to reverberate today. We as Episcopalians are pushing for policies that reflect the values we hold as Christians and as Americans.

Right now, what do we need to advocate for? In this crisis and moving forward: what policies are we calling for to combat racism?

First, in response to COVID-19, we need better data. Ibram Kendi at the Antiracist Research and Policy Center is leading a project tracking the collection of racial data. The data right now coming from states are inconsistent. We need better data. Data will allow us to see what the disparities are and better target resources to address those disparities and to see which communities are most vulnerable – for this crisis and the next.  We can't address what we don't measure. If we don't track it, we don't have metrics to fix it.

Second, we need to invest in research to better understand the racial disparities for COVID-19 and for other public health crises. It is obvious that systemic racism is the cause of many of the health disparities we see, but we need to know more. There are numerous overlapping issues, and it would help us if we could understand which aspects are the primary drivers of the differential outcomes. We must try to better understand the role of vast inequities in wealth, access to healthcare, employment, psychosocial stressors, environmental pollutants and access to clean air and clean water, access to fresh and healthy food, incarceration, student debt, predatory lending, education equity, immigration status, relationship to law enforcement, and experience with the criminal justice system.

Finally, we need to push for the policy changes that will have the biggest impact, alongside ongoing efforts to fight for transformative structural change. We must ask ourselves what are the first three things we want to ask our local government, state government, and Congress to take on?

In the Office of Government Relations, we have been advocating to push for racial justice in the federal government response to the pandemic and for policies that will protect the most vulnerable. We will continue to do so, and we invite all Episcopalians to take action with us through the Episcopal Public Policy Network.

At this time, the list is long of steps the federal government needs to take. Each of these will help to protect those who are most at risk right now, and to help respond in particular ways to communities of color in this moment. Policy priorities include:

  • Increased SNAP benefits, specifically a 15% increase.
  • Increased SNAP eligibility.
  • Allowing SNAP recipients to use funds for curbside delivery.
  • Equal treatment for immigrants and undocumented people.
  • End to predatory lending – a cap on interest rates. This is an issue we have advocated on for a long-time, and it is an issue with bipartisan support.
  • Rental and housing assistance.
  • Support for homeless populations.
  • Emergency assistance funding to help prevent housing instability and homelessness.
  • Support for Indigenous communities and those living in Tribal areas.
  • Protecting those who are incarcerated and calling for the release of those whom it is possible to release.
  • Addressing immigrant detention.
  • Expanded unemployment benefits, including for those who were not traditionally eligible.
  • Paid family leave to care for those who are sick or for families with children.
  • Paid sick leave.
  • A living wage.
  • Hazard pay for front line and essential workers
  • Programs to help with food insecurity and access to healthy food.
  • Provisions and protections for people with disabilities.
  • A social safety net that allows people and communities to have more resilience in the face of crises.
  • Access to affordable healthcare, including preventive care.
  • Ensuring full participation in the 2020 Census! Ensuring hard to count populations are not undercounted, including communities of color. The Census data determine funding levels for many programs that help low-income Americans, including school lunches, schools, elder care, resources for community on and on.
  • Ensuring that DACA recipients are protected in the months and years ahead.
  • Protecting voting rights and the upcoming U.S. election.
  • Federal government funding to states to protect state-level essential workers, including sanitation workers, teachers, public transit workers, and many others.

Even as we focus on domestic inequities and injustice, we must also remember the toll this is taking on human beings around the world, many of whom already face massive displacement, conflict, food insecurity, and extreme poverty. Given the influence of the U.S. globally, Americans have a particular responsibility to engage in international issues and to speak out for our siblings around the world who face extreme and dire circumstances. Our recommendations on international issues include:

  • Global debt relief for the poorest countries, so countries can focus on responding the pandemic rather than servicing debt.
  • Ending sanctions, especially for much needed humanitarian supplies. 
  • Continued U.S. foreign assistance that provides much-needed funding for global crises including those living in refugee camps and those facing famine.
  • Ongoing U.S. support for multilateral institutions that can help to coordinate a global response to a global problem.

I think taking a global perspective is essential if we are talking about anti-racism, remembering the influence of the U.S. in international affairs and our responsibility to care for those whom our government’s decisions have an impact on.

So, how can you take action? In the face of this crisis – and really the massive structures in place that maintain and perpetuate systemic racism – we can feel overwhelmed and powerless. But we are not powerless. What can you do?

  • Write to your members of Congress. Send them emails or letters. Call their offices. Let those offices know what your priorities are. Do the same with local officials too. Build relationships with those offices. Do so as a person of faith. Say that you are doing so because of your values. We often emphasize we are advocating for our values – not our interests narrowly defined.
  • Follow up with elected officials about their votes! See what they are supporting.
  • Meet with members of Congress in-district, either setting up your own meetings or going to public ones (virtual now).
  • Join the Episcopal Public Policy Network to get weekly action alerts and follow policy developments.
  • Get members of your congregations to join you in writing letters, emails, calling, arranging meetings.
  • Fill out the CENSUS! You can do so online now at 2020census.gov.
  • Vote!!!