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COVID-19 shines light on Detroit’s economic disparities

Jun 10, 2020

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. Today, as protests around the country shine a much-needed spotlight on racial disparities, it is even more critical for DEGC to lead conversations that address economic inequality, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. This is why I am proud that DEGC is an integral part of several public and 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 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 hit hardest 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 roughly 14 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 put minority communities at risk and expose their vulnerabilities, starting with a high incidence of poverty.

During an appearance on Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson, local journalist Anna Clark said 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 doctors’ 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 effects of COVID-19 are inextricable. Low paid jobs, such as janitor, factory worker and civil servant – often done by minority workers – can’t be performed 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 or access to timely information, transportation, fresh food and medicine. The ability to safely 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 one-third of Detroit residents. This requires legislative solutions to tackle racial disparity as well as partnerships with corporations and philanthropic organizations to drive resources to fill critical gaps.

Through our business attraction and retention programs, the DEGC is committed to growing Detroit’s black middle class. We know a steady job is a solid first step toward a more secure future. We are working with the City to create accessible employment opportunities for Detroiters that can serve as a path to prosperity. Bringing manufacturing back to Detroit is high on our list. We’re growing Detroit’s commercial corridors and small neighborhood businesses with programs for minority entrepreneurs. Additionally, 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 shined 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.”

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