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Pandemic Ravages Communities of Color in Illinois

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Across the nation, the coronavirus pandemic has particularly devastated African American and other communities of color, fueling disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 cases and related deaths.

In Chicago, through April, black residents had accounted for more than 40 percent of infections and 55 percent of virus deaths, despite making up only 30 percent of the overall population, city data show.

Residents in low-income, primarily nonwhite neighborhoods often lack access to consistent, high-quality medical care or health insurance. Black adults also have higher rates of diabetes, asthma and other underlying conditions associated with more severe cases of COVID-19, according to federal statistics.

To counteract such disparities, AARP Illinois is partnering with Chicago media outlets to launch the “We’re All in This Together” social media campaign (hashtag #togetherapart). The goal: Get crucial information about the virus and resources to disproportionately affected populations.

Radio station WVON 1690-AM, which has a predominantly African American audience, uses its urban talk format to provide information on how to shelter at home and obtain resources such as food and medical care. It is also partnering with AARP Illinois to provide a hotline number (773-336-3456) for listeners to send parents or grandparents a hello over the airwaves when in-person visits aren’t possible.

“We will help people adapt to their new normal,” said Melody Spann Cooper, chair and CEO of the station and its parent company, Midwest Broadcasting Corp. “It will be an adjustment.”

The efforts will continue after the pandemic crisis has passed.

Chicago has a history of racial inequity, from redlining to disinvestment in the city’s South and West sides, which limits access to high-quality health care, food and other crucial services, said Josh Harris, AARP Illinois associate state director.

“COVID-19 has brought these disparities to the forefront,” he said. “We can’t overlook this.”

Fighting against harassment

Chicago’s Spanish-language Univision affiliate, WGBO, has featured appearances by AARP representatives on the air and on Facebook Live.

AARP Illinois is also working to protect Asian Americans, who have been the target of harassment because of the disease’s racially charged misnomer, “the Chinese virus.”

The campaign is using social media and profiles in the Chicago Sun-Times to highlight Asian American and Pacific Islander health care professionals who are working with older adults, volunteers who are delivering personal protective equipment and meals, and business leaders who are pivoting to create products and services to help the community.

The coronavirus crisis has cast a brighter light on several ongoing AARP Illinois advocacy efforts, too, including promoting better access to telehealth services. The organization asked Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D), who expanded the use of telemedicine earlier this year, to require insurers to remind patients of virtual options and allow these to be used at long-term care facilities.

AARP has encouraged the state to work with nursing homes to set up virtual visits for residents and their families. It is also exploring virtual options for summer events. Go to aarp.org/il or call 866-448-3613 for more information.

Lisa Bertagnoli is a writer living in Chicago.

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