The ferocity of the covid-19 pandemic did what Black Pittsburgh — communities that make up a quarter of the city’s population — thought impossible. It shook the norms.
Black researchers, medical professionals and allies knew that people of color, even before covid, experienced bias in public health policy. As the deadly virus emerged, data analysts from Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, foundation directors, epidemiologists and others pooled their talents to configure databases from unwieldy state data to chart covid cases.
Their work documented yet another life-threatening disparity between white and Black Pittsburgh: People of color were at higher risk of catching the deadly virus and at higher risk of severe disease and death from that infection.
More than 100 weeks after advocates began pinging and ringing one another to warn of the virus’ spread, these volunteers are the backbone of the Black Equity Coalition, a grassroots collaboration that scrapes government data and shares community health intel.
About a dozen members of its data team of 60 meet twice weekly to study hospitalization rates and employment statistics. Social media advisers turned health equity into a buzzy online effort, with videos and weekly Facebook town halls, to encourage vaccinations. Local ministries are consulted, and volunteers take surveys at pop-up clinics, sponsored by other groups, at barbershops and hair salons. Elected lawmakers seek its counsel.
“We came together because we were concerned about saving lives,” said Tiffany Gary-Webb, associate dean for diversity and inclusion at the University of Pittsburgh, who oversees the data effort. “It evolved, with us realizing we can do more than address covid.”
Covid ravaged communities across the United States — more than 787,000 Americans have died, including Colin Powell, the first Black secretary of state and a decorated Army general — and laid bare how marginalized populations lose out in the scrum for public health dollars and specific populations were left vulnerable.
Months before the pandemic began, the Rev. Ricky Burgess led the Pittsburgh City Council to declare racism a public health crisis.
“Institutional racism is for real,” the councilman said in a recent interview. “You are talking about generational disproportional investment and generational disproportional treatment. And it impacts all that you see.”
The covid pandemic proved how structural inequities have been missed or ignored, Burgess said.
“I’ve lost friends, family and a
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