Flint, MI—In response to the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on black and Latinx communities, local community groups partnered to create The Greater Flint Coronavirus Taskforce on Racial Disparities.
“If you look at the zip code 48505 or actually the city of Flint proper and even some zip codes in Flint Township and Grand Blanc, [they] show an overwhelming, concentrated impact of COVID-19,” said Isaiah Oliver CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, which spearheaded the creation of the task force.
Michigan State University Division of Public Health, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the City of Flint, Flint Genesee Chamber of Commerce, Hamilton Community Health Network and Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, partnered with the CFGF to create the task force.
As soon as preliminary data from the CDC started being released, it became clear that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting brown and black communities across the country. Flint is no exception. According to the Genesee County Health Department, as of press time, 43% of COVID-19 cases in the county have been from African Americans, 6% higher than the next highest group, caucasians. Percentage of deceased cases is also the highest within the African American community at 51%, 9% higher than the next highest group, again caucasians.
According to Oliver, the task force is focused on finding and securing equitable access to resource allocation for all community members. He said he also wants to prevent further disparities after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended, “Post COVID-19 care,” as he calls it. This will include providing wider access to testing, treatment and other related outcomes like food and work insecurity, Oliver said.
On Monday, April 20, the day before the local task force was announced, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had shared the names of the members of a statewide taskforce with similar aims: the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities.
This brought some community leaders like Flint Board of Education member Blake Strozier, to question the lack of representation on the state’s task force and the necessity of a second local task force.
Upon its announcement, the state task force only had one Flint citizen on it, Associate Dean for Public Health Integration and Director of the Flint Center for Health Equity Solutions Dr. Debra Furr-Holden. Furr-Holden also serves as a member of the local task force.
A day later however, on Tuesday, April 21, Whitmer’s office announced Tonya Bailey, Ph.D., Chief Diversity Officer at Lansing Community College and Flint Township resident would also be joining the task force.
“Any representation is good representation,” said Strozier. “If we can be given a voice, that’s a positive in my thoughts.”
While his initial concerns about Flint representation on the state task force were soon addressed, Strozier said he thinks the formation of a local task force is superfluous. The real problem that needs to be addressed, he said, is the lack of transportation for community members to reach food distribution centers as well as hospitals.
“There is obviously a lack of recognition of the resources that exist in (these) communities, and the problem is not that we don’t have enough resources, but that we don’t have enough access to those resources,” Strozier said. “When are we going to stop the task forces and just provide access?” Strozier said.
Asa Zuccaro, executive director of the Latinx Technology and Community Center in Flint shared similar concerns about the task force’s effectiveness.
“I think the scope of just focusing on COVID-19 is way too small,” Zuccaro said, adding that he believes it shouldn’t take a worldwide pandemic to bring attention to underserved communities.
If that is what takes, he said, then he fears the solutions regarding these disparities will live only as long as the pandemic does.
“If the focus is on COVID-19, will the conversation have the ability to go where it needs to go … beyond just the immediate (situation) and go into depth on why communities of color face disparities?” Zuccaro said.
According to Zuccaro, similar attempts were made to address how the Flint Water Crisis had affected minority communities, most of them, he said, to no avail.
“What does that even mean?” he said, regarding promises of support from the local task force. “Can I request gloves and masks from the Community Foundation to pass out to residents?” he asked. “So I mean, what is it?”
Others, like Flint Mayor Sheldon Neely, are more optimistic about the task force’s formation.
“My hope and my greater wish for this task force is to put out a report for something we already know, for something that is already currently obvious throughout our state and our county and also our country,” he said. “The disparity between people of color and people not of color is a large gap in this pandemic, that has happened to reveal itself in the worst type of way.”
Though not directly related to the task force, Neely said he wants to see the causes for these disparities pinpointed and accounted for. “We have other compromising health issues that puts us more at risk than others. Even our environment many times.” Neely said. According to him, the task force will “look at issues of conditions and densely populated areas … It’s going to even go as far as talking about infant mortality.”
In addition, Neely sees the information the Greater Flint Coronavirus Taskforce on Racial Disparities will gather as future examples of the effects pandemics like COVID-19 can have on underserved communities. “at some point in the far reaches of this,” he said, “they’re going to be able to talk about this thing that is not natural and becoming moreover a genocide of types when we look at the disparities and what is the byproduct of the disparities.”