Connecting Systems to Build Health Equity During COVID-19

Mar 1, 2021, 12:00 AM, Posted by Chris Lyttle

Demonstration sign.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in July 2020.

A Personal Journey

It's hard to describe water to a fish while it’s swimming in it. I was that fish, growing up in a working-class, majority Black community in southwest Ohio. For instance, it hadn’t occurred to me to question why my school had metal detectors and armed police officers at every entrance yet so few textbooks that students had no choice but to share. Or why we had to travel to find affordable fresh vegetables while unhealthy food nearby was as easily accessible as payday loans and other predatory financial products. Having unmet needs was normal in these waters.

I was in high school when I began wondering why there were so many of these unmet needs in my community. An invitation to a cancer research conference hosted at a neighboring public school was an eye-opening experience. The school was one of the top-ranked in the state, nestled in a wealthy neighborhood with a well-stocked grocery store and multiple banks within walking distance. 

These waters were different.

That sense of unfairness filtered into my own life from another angle. I attended a school with limited resources which meant that opportunities within the school were offered to only a few. Since my mother was a powerful advocate for my education, I had access to after-school activities and advanced placement classes while friends living on the same block did not. That bothered me too.

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New Narratives of Hope This Black History Month–And Beyond

Feb 9, 2021, 12:00 AM, Posted by Dwayne Proctor

More than 50 years after the civil rights movement we still have a lot to do to reduce discrimination and increase health equity. Dwayne Proctor reflects on the role of stories in the search for solutions.

An older student plays around with a younger student in a school auditorium.

Author’s note, February 2021: My post below was first published in February 2018. Over the past harrowing year, the issues it explores have become even more urgent, as the murder of George Floyd triggered a racial reckoning during a global pandemic that has hit communities of color hardest. In the midst of it all, systemic racism continues to take a brutal toll. The death of Dr. Susan Moore, who called out the racism she was experiencing as a patient, is just one example. Moore’s death, and those of Clyde Murphy and Shalon Irving, which I wrote about in my blog, are painful reminders of the cost of letting such racism continue. In the words of RWJF Trustee Dr. David Williams: “The first thing we have to do is acknowledge that the everyday racial discrimination embedded in our culture is sickening and killing African-Americans, and make a new commitment to make America a healthier place for all.”

One of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories is watching from my bedroom window as my city burned in the riots that erupted after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination 50 years ago.  

The next afternoon, my mother brought me to the playground at my school in Southeast Washington, D.C., which somehow was untouched. As she pushed me in a swing, she asked if I understood what had happened the day before and who Dr. King was.

“Yes,” I said. “He was working to make things better for Negroes like you.”

My mother, whose skin is several tones darker than mine, stared at me in surprise. Somehow, even at 4 years old, I had learned to observe differences in complexion.

That is particularly interesting to me now, as I eventually came to believe that “race” is a social construct.

Of course racism and discrimination exist. They are deeply embedded in America’s history and culture—but so too is the struggle against them.

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Community Health Workers: Walking In The Shoes of Those They Serve

Feb 2, 2021, 10:30 AM, Posted by Dwayne Proctor

By harnessing trust, community health workers are becoming a powerful force for achieving health equity.

Woman wearing protective mask taking groceries from caring volunteer.

It didn’t take long last Spring for Dr. Shreya Kangovi to realize that the COVID-19 pandemic would create a tsunami of inequity where inequity already long existed. Then the murder of George Floyd led to a national racial reckoning, too. Kangovi knew that community health workers (CHWs)—a field she is helping to pioneer and advance—are first responders on all those fronts.

A recipient of a 2019 RWJF Award for Health Equity, Kangovi is a primary care doctor in Philadelphia, a health policy researcher, and a professor who works to improve health equity. Kangovi developed IMPaCT, a community health worker program that relies on trustworthy individuals to help their community members improve their health and well-being. In randomized controlled trials, IMPaCT has improved chronic disease control, primary care access, mental health, and quality of care while reducing hospital admissions. It is the nation’s most widely disseminated CHW program.

Kangovi shared insights about the ways CHWs advance equity and better health, and the role they can play as we cope with and recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

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Understanding Our Health Before the Pandemic Can Help Us Improve It Afterward

Jan 29, 2021, 10:45 AM, Posted by Anita Chandra, Carolyn Miller

Measuring health and the social and economic factors that influenced it before the pandemic helps us understand the kind of risks the nation faced previously. It can also inform how to move forward toward recovery. 

Man receives blood pressure test.

2020 was arguably one of the most difficult years in American history, challenging our resilience and surfacing enduring and systemic challenges to our collective health and well-being. As we continue to measure the pandemic’s impact on short- and long-term health, as well as other social and economic indicators, it is useful to note where we stood pre-pandemic. Understanding the conditions and trends that shaped our health before COVID-19 helps us assess whether the systems now being tested to respond to COVID-19 are robust. 

Last year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), along with the RAND Corporation, shared an update on the national set of measures that we have been using to track our journey toward a culture where every person has a fair and just opportunity to live the healthiest life possible. The goal of the Culture of Health measures is to offer signals of change with a focus on broader social and economic drivers of health, well-being, and equity, as well as the role all sectors play in influencing health outcomes. Developing a clearer picture of what is changing (or not) via the Culture of Health measures is useful for directing investments and identifying where, as a nation, we need to make progress. 

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In a Worldwide Health Crisis, Lessons From Resilient Communities

Jan 22, 2021, 12:45 PM, Posted by Katie Wehr

No community has had it easy during COVID-19. Those with a consistent health equity focus before the pandemic have found advantages in facing the crisis. 

Men distribute food.

The RWJF Culture of Health Prize honors communities—urban, rural, tribal, large or small—that are beacons of hope and progress on creating places that enable health and well-being for all.

RWJF recognizes Culture of Health Prize winners for their broad definition of health and strong collaboration between community partners and residents, and across many sectors and levels of power. In a Culture of Health Prize community, those facing problems participate in shaping solutions. These communities commit to sustainable systems change and policy oriented long-term solutions. They create conditions that give everyone a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. They use data to measure and share progress and results.

Throughout 2020, winners used the strategies and networks they built to tackle the coronavirus and America’s reckoning with racial justice. We drew lessons and inspiration from these communities. In future posts we look forward to sharing how several Prize winners have put addressing systemic racism at the center of their work to promote health for all and how in other Prize communities, young people are forging networks, leading by example and finding new ways to advance health equity.

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Five Experts Reflect on the Health Equity Implications of the Pandemic

Dec 1, 2020, 12:45 PM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

As the novel coronavirus swept the globe, structural racism drove its disproportionate impact on communities of color in our nation. As we look ahead to a new year, experts weigh in with thoughts and hope for shaping a healthier, more equitable future.

Two people wearing masks facing each other.

When acclaimed Barbadian author Karen Lord envisioned life on a small island during a pandemic in her story The Plague Doctors, she never imagined that within weeks of its publication, “history would become present, and fiction real life.” Lord’s short story in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) first-ever book of fiction, Take Us to a Better Place, was written months before coronavirus emerged. With chilling prescience, it imagines a deadly infectious disease besetting the globe and follows Dr. Audra Lee as she fights to save her 6-year-old niece. The heroine confronts not just the disease but also a society that serves the wealthy at the expense of others.

This latter point was especially relevant here in the United States where COVID-19 hit communities of color dramatically harder than others. Centuries of structural racism have created numerous barriers to health including difficult living conditions; limited educational opportunity; high-risk jobs; lack of access to paid leave and disparities in care. Historical trauma has also driven deeply rooted mistrust of the medical establishment. All of these interconnected factors have magnified risk for both exposure to COVID-19 and the worst possible outcomes from the virus.

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Sesame Street Offers Support to Families Coping with Pandemic Stress

Nov 16, 2020, 10:45 AM, Posted by Jeanette Betancourt, Katie Wehr

Navigating the holidays amid a pandemic is stressful. Sesame Street in Communities is offering support to help families cope with both common and new challenges.

Sesame Street Photo Credit: Sesame Workshop / Zach Hyman

Both of us, like many in America, are feeling anxious and unsure about what the upcoming holidays will look like for families. It’s difficult to know how to prepare or talk about this, and really all that is going on, with the young children in our lives.

Throughout this year our kids have continuously faced several changes. Suddenly their routines and schedules are different. Many are not seeing friends, family, teachers, and classmates in person as often or at all. They miss what felt normal and comfortable and they have all sorts of questions about what is happening and why. They struggle with what to do with all the “big feelings” they are experiencing.

They can also sense increased stress that the adults in their lives are facing. Adults are juggling care for their children, often adding homeschool teacher or “videochat technical support wizard” to already increased workloads. Those who are teachers, work in health care, or have other “essential” positions face significant danger and stress in their jobs every day. Others have lost jobs or are trying to protect or care for aging parents during a pandemic. Through all of this uncertainty and loss, parents and caregivers need ways to care for themselves, and children need to know they are going to be safe.

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Grandfamilies and COVID-19: Families of Unique Origins Face Unique Challenges

Nov 12, 2020, 10:45 AM, Posted by Jennie Day-Burget

Raising a child can be hard at any age. Doing so in one’s golden years during a global pandemic introduces an array of unique challenges.

Grandfather carries grandson on his shoulders.

Mel Hannah spent most of his life in service to others. He was the first African American member of the Flagstaff City Council and vice chairman of the NAACP Arizona State Conference. And, in service to his beloved family, Mel and his wife Shirley, now in their 80s, have been helping their daughter Ashley raise her three children these past years. Sadly, however, Ashley contracted and tragically died from COVID-19 in May. Ashley’s untimely death left the Hannahs as the sole caretakers for her young boys, ages 5, 4, and 1.

The Hannahs’ story exemplifies the heavy toll of the pandemic, and especially the unique and often overlooked impact it is having on “grandfamilies” or kinship families. These are families in which children live with and are being raised by grandparents, other extended family members, and adults with whom they have a close family-like relationship, such as godparents and close family friends. Astonishingly, about 7.8 million children across the country live in households headed by grandparents or other relatives. Of that number, 2.7 million do not have a parent living in the household.

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Help Us Learn How Public Policy Can Advance Racial Equity

Oct 28, 2020, 12:30 PM, Posted by Mona Shah

We’re announcing $2 million in grants for policy research. Send us your ideas for studying the impact of local, state, and national policies designed to promote racial equity.

Woman wearing face masks and holding hands.

When Harris County voters approved a $2.5 billion bond to pay for more than 500 local flood-control projects, it seemed like a sound response to Hurricane Harvey. In 2017, the storm dropped 50 inches of rain in the Houston region, flooding some 166,000 homes. Based on a traditional return-on-investment analysis, it might also have appeared reasonable to spend that bond money in neighborhoods with the most expensive properties.

But county officials understood what that would mean—little protection for communities living with the most inadequate social, physical, and economic resources—many of whom are communities of color. And so, they chose a different policy approach. They gave preference to projects that ranked higher on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index, which uses socioeconomic status, racial and ethnic status, household composition, housing, access to transportation, and other metrics to uncover potential vulnerability. The result: funds for flood control prioritized towards low-income communities and communities of color, those least able to recover from disasters.

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Global Approaches to Well-Being: What We Are Learning

Oct 13, 2020, 2:00 PM, Posted by Alonzo L. Plough

What can we learn from other countries about advancing well-being—a notion of health that extends beyond the absence of disease? A new, free book will offer examples and actionable ideas. 

A father and mother hold their baby.

Since we originally published this post in July 2019, more cities and countries are exploring ways of centering decision-making on human and planetary well-being—from Iceland, which revealed a new well-being framework, to Canada, which is exploring budget indicators that encompass happiness and well-being. 

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of how interconnected we are and always have been across lives, livelihoods, and well-being of communities and societies everywhere. In the United States, its spread has sharply illuminated inequitable conditions and ongoing systemic racism. Rates of infection and complications from the virus are significantly higher in communities of color, Native communities and tribes, immigrant communities, and other groups that live with higher rates of air pollution, spotty health insurance coverage, persistent health inequities, and lack of paid leave or a financial safety net to follow “stay home” public health orders. As we recover, prepare for potential future outbreaks and rebuild, we must prioritize equitable well-being as the ultimate goal. We might take a lesson from New Zealand, which adopted a well-being budget last year, has made significant investments in vital services like mental health and education as well as environmental protections, and has had an exceptionally low mortality rate and relatively rapid recovery from COVID-19.

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