By Rhonda Smith | Special to the Observer

Rhonda Smith

OPINION – The COVID-19 pandemic has been crushing to California’s Black community and has starkly exposed long-standing racial injustices and inequities. As the coronavirus rampaged, Black people in California became more likely to contract the virus than White residents, more likely to die from it, and more likely to become unemployed because of it. The origin of this devastating reality can be traced to the historic racial Inequities that have beset our communities, inequities that have made the virus all the more deadly for Blacks. Once brought to light, these systemic inequities can no longer be denied, and it is past time for California to implement meaningful solutions. 

The long list of inequities facing California’s Black community is no secret to those of us who have experienced them first-hand.  The life expectancy at birth for Black Californians is 75.1 years — five years shorter than the state average and the lowest life expectancy of all racial and ethnic groups.  Not only are Black Californians experiencing the state’s highest rates of death from COVID-19 virus, but they also have disproportionately lower vaccination rates compared to other racial groups. But now, as COVID-19 has wreaked havoc, people in our state and around the country are finally clearly witnessing the impact of egregious and systemic racism on health outcomes. We’ve all watched in horror as the ongoing lack of access to quality, equitable healthcare coupled with racial biases have left Black people with preexisting health conditions far more likely to contract and die from COVID-19.  And we saw this devastation driven by the fact that many Blacks, along with Latinos are essential and frontline workers, forcing them into constant exposure to the deadly virus. 

COVID-19 has also devastated the economic health of the Black community. More than 83% of Black workers in California filed for unemployment at the height of the pandemic, a shocking figure compared to the state average of 44.4%. The devastation of job loss has been magnified by the resulting loss of health insurance, financial stability, housing, and food security, which have all further diminished the physical and mental health of Black Californians. This and other disparities must end. 

There is a proposal on the table to help address these long-standing racial biases and disparities that have been exacerbated by COVID-19.  The Senate and Assembly Budget Committee have taken a bold first step by recommending a $100 million annual investment in a Health Equity and Racial Justice Fund.   This historical investment would support community-based organizations, clinics and tribal organizations to  address the root causes of health inequities.  The proposal builds on Assemblymembers Gipson and Carillo’s bill, AB 1038, calling for the establishment of a California Health Equity Fund which has passed in the Assembly with strong bipartisan support.  

Undeniably, racism is a public health and humanitarian crisis, a truth COVID-19 has exposed to us all. Now, more than ever, it’s imperative that we take action to improve health outcomes for Black Californians, inspire hope for a better future, and ensure a more racially just humanity. Passage of AB 1038 and the Budget Committee’s recommended CA Health Equity and Racial Justice Fund will provide communities of color with the support, resources, and tools needed to undo the systems and policies that have resulted in generational inequities, to strengthen and build a more resilient Black community. One that is no longer a subject of or severely impacted by systemic racial, health, and income inequalities.   

We urge the legislature and Governor Newsom to approve and fund the creation of a California Health Equity and Racial Justice Fund to help make California a more just and equitable place for everyone, regardless of where they live, who they love, their income, the color of their skin, or what country they are from.  

EDITOR’S NOTE: Rhonda Smith is Executive Director of the California Black Health Network. The California Black Health Network (CBHN) is a co-sponsor of AB 1038. CBHN’s mission is to ensure that all Black Californians, regardless of their education, socio-economic class, zip code, sexual orientation, gender identity, homelessness, or immigration status have access to high quality and equitable primary and behavioral healthcare, and avoid unnecessarily succumbing to disease.