By Josue Villalpando and Alan Villagomez
The COVID-19 pandemic took the world by surprise in 2020, leaving experts and governments racing to figure out the severity of the pandemic along with understanding the virus.
In Chicago, the need for answers and understanding of the virus was dire, being a densely populated city, and the third largest in the United States. Chicago is home to a very diverse population, with half of the population being Black or Hispanic/Latino.
Within the first few months of the pandemic, COVID-19 infection rates among Black and Latino populations were significantly higher than the white population. KFF, a non-profit organization involved in health policy research, collected data surrounding the age-adjusted data of COVID-19 infections showing that Latino individuals were 1.5 times more likely to be infected by COVID-19 compared to individuals who are white.
Death rates due to COVID-19 were also significantly higher among Black and Latino populations. In a research study led by Jacob B. Pierce, on the racial/ethnic mortality due to neighborhood disadvantages as a result of COVID-19, showed that in Chicago, NH Black individuals accounted for 43.2% of deaths, followed by Hispanic individuals with 23.5%, compared to White individuals with 27.3%.
The data showed that black and brown communities in Chicago were not getting vaccinated at the same rate as the communities that were predominantly white or non-Black and non-Latino. Research led by Sharon Zeng of the University of Chicago showed that Black participants made up the least vaccinated quartile at 80%, while Hispanics made up the intermediate quartiles at 40%.
In comparison, non-Hispanic white residents made up the most vaccinated quartile at 68%. There was a big margin in vaccination rates between these communities, which led to many initiatives that focused on racial and community outreach to try and increase COVID-19 vaccination and education regarding the severity of the virus.
LaDarius Curtis, senior director of community engagement and health at West Side United, said that having translators and bilingual speakers in predominantly Spanish-speaking communities resulted in a positive payoff. “That helped us out tremendously,” he said, “in terms of getting people to understand where we were working with those community-based organizations.”
Thanks to this, West Side United saw an uptick of community engagement and willingness to take the vaccine and receive information regarding COVID-19. Curtis claimed due to these efforts “we never would have been able to get as many people vaccinated as we did.”
ZIP codes and neighborhoods that are low-income and predominantly Black and Hispanic have been the most affected by the pandemic. To get a better understanding of these disparities among Chicago residents, researchers and health experts needed to understand the reasons why there were such high infection and death rates within these communities, along with the lowest rate of vaccinations. Researchers have credited structural racism as a possible reason for disparities in vaccine coverage.
Additionally, the COVID-19 vaccine distribution was faced with major drawbacks within communities of color, because there was a lack of trust in how they were being represented and not prioritized in comparison with predominantly white, upper-class neighborhoods.
The lack of trust is brought to light by several factors. These include access barriers, income disparities, underrepresentation, and misinformation, only to name a few as mentioned by former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The lack of trust in the COVID-19 vaccines can be attributed to a historical lack of trust in the government and health institutions within communities of color. These communities have observed unequal representation which sets up the skepticism as we have seen during COVID-19 when they are told to get a vaccine.
For example, the factor of income played a huge role in the lack of vaccination in communities of color, mainly because it was not their main focus. Many individuals suffered financial hardships during these times, which in turn limited their ability to obtain the healthcare resources they needed.
In predominantly Latin-x communities, there is a history of hesitation regarding government-mandated vaccines, as many residents may be undocumented. This distrust and fear of government agencies among undocumented populations could have potentially led to these groups not getting vaccinated for COVID-19 out of fear of risk of deportation.
Community engagement has been proven to be effective in providing trustworthiness about public and health institutions, more specifically among communities of color.
Veronica Pereyra, a community engagement coordinator at West Side United, said community engagement was critical to gather data and engage in trustworthiness among the communities in the Sest and South Sides. She said that thanks to these efforts, they had 36,757 people engaged about the vaccine on the West Side alone, according to their reports.
In addition, the overall socioeconomic struggle that these communities faced to stay afloat financially, made it difficult for people of color to prioritize getting vaccinations.
These shared issues among communities of color regarding COVID-19 vaccination and general understanding of the virus led to the creation of many organizations and initiatives within Chicago such as the CEAL program and West Side United. These organizations and initiatives had one goal in mind during the pandemic: working and engaging with predominantly underserved black and brown communities in Chicago to close health disparities regarding COVID-19 vaccination and accessibility.
Dr. Molly Martin, principal investigator for the Chicagoland CEAL Program, Emphasized the lack of trust that these communities experienced.
“One of the things that we were hearing about a lot is that from community organizations, that everyone’s trying to shove the vaccine down their throat, but they don’t have food,” she said, “They don’t have stable housing. They don’t have any decent transportation. They’re essential workers…and you’re like vaccine vaccine vaccine, but I need to feed my family today.”
Therefore, the lack of support that these communities of color have seen had a big impact on their hesitancy and priority to get the vaccine.
The lack of funding and prioritization for communities that make up the majority of the demographic in Chicago is alarming. Organizations and initiatives are advocating and helping close the gap regarding health disparities within these communities. However, it is important to acknowledge this ongoing issue that affects millions of people who direly need equal access to health resources.
Martin emphasized the fact that COVID-19 opens the eyes of many to the inequities within brown and Latino communities, because everyone is responsible, as we are all in this together.
“It’s the same stories. It’s always been, there’s just been more attention because finally, COVID forced everyone to acknowledge that there is a price to pay for these structural inequities, everybody pays that price,” she said. “Now, some people pay worse than others, right? But everybody has a stake in the game here.”
COVID-19 Disparity in Chicago by Josue Villalpando