Last month, I had the pleasure of participating in a Michigan Chronicle webinar focused on supporting Detroit’s small businesses in the wake of COVID-19. I am proud that DEGC is an integral part of several public/private initiatives helping small businesses, including Detroit Means Business. It is heartening to see so many of us working together to sustain Detroit during the immediate crisis and beyond.
As a panelist, I was asked how the pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in our community.
Unfortunately, cities around the world were shown unprepared for this health crisis. Communities lack the needed hospital beds, medical personnel, protective equipment, test kits, hand sanitizer and more. Detroit has been one of the cities hardest hit by the virus, despite being the first to have rapid testing and a 1,000-bed field hospital (TCF Center) operational by early April.
Not only is Detroit a hot spot for infection, the mortality rate for Detroiters’ resulting from COVID-19 infection is among the country’s highest. Statistics show that the virus is affecting and killing black citizens at a disproportionately high rate. Forty percent of those dying from Covid-19 in Michigan are black, while the state’s black population is only 12 percent.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has appointed a task force, chaired by Michigan’s first black Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist, to investigate the racial disparities of the COVID-19 crisis.
“The virus is holding up a mirror to our society and reminding us of the deep inequities in our country – from basic lack of access to care, to access to transportation, to lack of protections in the workplace,” said Gov. Whitmer.
There are a number of underlying social conditions that have put minority communities at risk and exposed their vulnerabilities, starting with a high incidence of poverty.
During an appearance on Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson, local journalist Anna Clark said that poverty breeds a host of cumulative problems, including health conditions that make a virus like COVID-19 far more fatal. For example, Detroit suffers a lack of doctor’s offices, which leads to a population with untreated medical issues. As we’ve seen, pre-existing health conditions increase the risk for infection and death from this virus.
The economic and health affects of COVID-19 are inextricable. The low paid hourly jobs of clerk, janitor, factory worker and civil servant often done by minority workers can’t be done remotely, further putting this group at risk. Gig-economy workers with two or three part-time jobs, which were quickly eliminated when the outbreak hit, have been left without health benefits and are at higher risk should they become ill.
Those beneath the poverty line also go without safe and affordable housing, as well as access to timely information, transportation, fresh food and medicine. The ability to safe distance, visit a testing site, wash hands regularly, obtain protective equipment and maintain a healthy lifestyle are all marginalized as a result.
As we create and implement a long-term economic recovery plan to heal our city, we must also develop a plan to address the root causes of these inequities. First and foremost is a plan to eradicate the institutional poverty that affects a third of Detroit residents. This requires legislative solutions to tackle racial disparity and well as partnerships with corporations and philanthropic organizations to drive resources to critical gaps.
Through our business attraction and retention programs, the DEGC is committed to growing Detroit’s black middle class. We know that a steady job is a solid first step toward a more secure future. Working with the City, we are creating accessible employment opportunities for Detroiters that can serve as a path to prosperity. High on our list is bringing manufacturing back to Detroit. We’re growing Detroit’s commercial corridors and small neighborhood businesses with programs for minority entrepreneurs. And we support affordable, city-wide development, especially those projects by young, black developers. Each of these initiatives has the power to attack poverty head-on.
COVID-19 has magnified the problems we’ve been reluctant to address and unsuccessful in solving. It has shone a light on poverty and inequalities that can no longer be ignored. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr., “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”