“Our health is our wealth” Illinois NAACP hosts virtual town hall on COVID-19 in the African American community

By Danny Connolly, Contributing Writer

Over 100 members of the NAACP across Illinois joined in on a virtual town hall to get more information from health care officials and have their questions answered about COVID-19.

The town hall was hosted by Illinois NAACP President Teresa Haley over Zoom and Facebook Live.

Sixteen percent of Illinois’s population is African American, but according to the Illinois Department of Public Health, African Americans account for over 23% of cases and 37% of COVID-19 deaths in Illinois. 

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The racial disparity is common among all states collecting demographics, according to Lt. Gov. of Illinois Julianna Stratton, who leads the Justice Equity and Opportunity Initiative for Illinois. 

“A lot of people know that saying, “When America catches a cold, then black people catch pneumonia.” Today, we can also say that when America catches the novel coronavirus, then black America is dying,” Stratton said. 

According to Stratton, reasons why this statistic is so high include implicit bias in healthcare and the types of jobs African American workers have, as 80% of African American workers have jobs that are unable to work from home.

Dr. Wendi Wills El-Amin, the associate dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion at SIU School of Medicine, debunked many myths about the spread and treatment of coronavirus, from the idea that children and people with certain blood type can’t get the virus, to vaccines for other viruses prevent COVID-19 and President Trump’s televised remark suggesting ingesting bleach may help fight COVID-19. She also stressed the importance of wearing masks to mitigate the spread of the virus by asymptomatic carriers, as required by Governor Pritzker starting May 1.

“When you put a mask on, you’re not preventing yourself necessarily from getting it unless you’re wearing an N-95 [respirator]. When you put the mask on, you’re saying “I could potentially have this and I want to respect and be my brother’s keeper, my sister’s keeper, and prevent from spreading this,” Wills El-Amin said.

The head of the Illinois Department of Public Health, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, talked about the role personal hygiene measures, such as washing hands and not touching your face, can help people from getting sick. 

“[The virus] just being on your skin would not make you ill. But if it went from your skin from in your mouth, in your nose, in your eyes, or an open cut, those are entry points for the virus into your body if you have the virus on your hands,” Ezike said.

Ezike also said most people who get the virus do not die or need hospitalization for treatment. However, people with pre-existing health conditions like liver problems, high blood pressure, pregnant or recently pregnant, COPD, cancer and obesity are more likely to need hospitalization. 

The town hall also provided suggestions on how to deal with the economic repercussions of the stay-at-home order, as over 500,000 Illinois workers have filed for unemployment since March 1. 

A study done by the Center For Responsible Lending found that 95% of African American owned businesses cannot receive any funding from the Paycheck Protection Program, because the businesses don’t have relationships with banks associated with the Small Business Association. 

“We are seeing the same disparities in the black community from the barriers that have been put up in the banking system, where we are seeing larger corporations getting the assistance for their business, where smaller businesses […] aren’t getting access to those funds,” Stratton said.

Stratton also talked about the new unemployment programs set up through the CARES Act. Wills El-Amin recommended pre-paying services like haircuts after the stay-at-home order is lifted, and told business owners to apply for private grants from non-for-profit organizations like United Way. Some NAACP branches across the state are already sponsoring an African-American owned business to make sure they don’t close.  

Members of the community also offered suggestions to the healthcare workers after their speeches, such as they need for walk-in clinics for those who can’t drive, and hiring the unemployed to make personal protective equipment.    

The structural racism in the United States healthcare system was apparent long before the coronavirus, the speakers noted. 

“When you get a community that has not gotten the care they need and has not had access to the resources they need, and they’ll have more morbidity and illness to start with. And then you stick some crazy new virus on top of it, it’s going to exploit what’s already there,” Ezike said.

But with medically correct information being passed around, she said “We will get on the other side of this.”

Any central or southern Illinois resident who needs help in dealing with the virus can call the SIU School of Medicine COVID-19 Hotline at 217-545-5100 to get in contact with a pandemic health worker.

Guest contributor Danny Connolly is the assignments editor for River Region Evening Edition and can be reached on Twitter at @DConnollyTV. 

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