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Ald. Sophia King (4th) during the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus town hall Tuesday afternoon. 

The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus hosted a virtual town hall meeting Tuesday afternoon, during which elected officials and health experts discussed the outsize impact of the coronavirus outbreak on Black communities in Illinois.

“This crisis is is similar to Katrina, where it has shown and brought to bear a systemic disparity (that) is being exposed here,” said Ald. Sophia King (4th). “We need to pour resources of testing into those communities. We need to make sure those communities are marketed to well, we need to make sure those communities have the access to health care that they need.”

A report this past weekend from WBEZ found that Black residents make up 70% of coronavirus deaths in Chicago, despite comprising only 29% of the city’s population. An Illinois Department of Health (IDPH) map also shows that many of the zip codes with the highest number of case are on the South Side, covering majority Black neighborhoods such as Englewood and Chatham.

Kiran Joshi, the newly appointed co-CEO for the Cook County Department of Public Health, gave some possible reasons for the disparity.

“We believe … that these differences are the result of injustice. Things like redlining, economic disinvestment, less access to health care or health insurance, food insecurity, the list goes on,” he said during the town hall. “I think there’s an increasing understanding in public health and folks that are involved in policy-making and government that really the underlying reason for this is structural racism.”

The well-documented lack of adequate healthcare in Black communities, for instance, means that Black people will tend to fare worse when they do contract the coronavirus. “We know that heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, kidney disease, liver disease, all of these conditions — which are already too prevalent in our African-American community — (are) the reason why, when you overlay COVID, we’re seeing these horrific statistics overall for the state,” said Ngozi Ezike, director of the IDPH.

But Ezike also said that the stay-at-home order seems to have had a positive effect on the rate of increase in new cases. That means the state may ultimately have enough hospital beds and ventilators for every patients who needs one.

“The reason that people were talking in Italy about putting two people on one vent is because they ran out vents, and so, you know, obviously desperate times call for desperate measures. That is something that they came to because they wanted to not leave as many people just dying in the halls, and try to find a way to treat more people,” she said. “And that's exactly what we're trying to prevent with the, with the build out of additional beds …. We're trying to make sure that anyone who does get sick will have access to the care they need.”

In order to combat the racial disparity in coronavirus cases, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced two days ago that she was forming a Racial Equity Rapid Response Team. At the town hall, Candace Moore, the city’s Chief Equity Officer, explained what the group would do.

“The idea of this is to really take our public health approach and get it down into a sort of hyper-local level, to really work with communities and in partnership, to both share information and access to resources to communities,” she said. “We also want to have someone provide directional system information, by which we are learning what folks need.

“What does stay at home mean, when you live in a multi generational home? And what does quarantine and isolation look like, if you are in a home where multiple folks are sharing rooms? It may not be that easy. Our ability to both listen to the questions and get answers that people really need is going to be critical.”

The town hall ended with State Senator and Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (D-4th) urging people to continue staying inside. “It was amazing to look out my window and see 20 people hanging out in the front yard. I just don’t know if we know how important it is in the Black community to stay at home,” she said.

“It’s important as leaders we continue to make our constituents as comfortable as possible because … PTSD will be alive and well in our communities because we’re losing so many family members,” she continued. “I’ve been on the phone making sure that counseling will be in place. Grieving opportunities for people to get that extra help will need to be in place, because when COVID goes away we’re still going to have to deal with a lot of loss.”


Christian Belanger graduated from the University of Chicago in 2017. He has previously written for South Side Weekly, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Reader.

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