In this powerful piece, Dr. Ezemenari Obasi, Director of HRI, discusses how the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the inequities that made the old normal undesirable for far too many people.

With COVID-19 deaths surpassing 50,000 in the United States, many politicians are quick to pivot to getting back to a sense of normalcy.

We shouldn’t want to return to normal.



The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the inequities that made the old normal undesirable for far too many people. African Americans suffer disproportionately from COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions such as diabetes, obesity and asthma. As Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an April press briefing, “Health disparities have always existed for the African American community…We will get over coronavirus, but there will still be health disparities.”





There shouldn’t be. Health disparities are not a normal human condition. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines health disparities as preventable differences in the rate of disease experienced by socially disadvantaged populations — people who live with racism, inadequate educational and job opportunities, substandard housing, poverty and the lack of access to good and affordable health care.





I grew up in a neighborhood that was infested with gangs, violence, crack houses, prostitution and liquor stores, but it didn’t have a grocery store or medical facility close enough to serve people who lacked transportation. Forget having the financial resources to purchase healthy food or pay for decent medical care. We did what everyone else did. We found a way to make do with what little we had.





As a professor who studies health disparities that impact our most vulnerable populations, I continue to see the injustices I saw growing up.





I have no interest in an old or new normal where health disparities are normalized, and where victims are routinely blamed for the disproportionate burdens they shoulder. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, a black male, recently noted that in Milwaukee County, black people make up 26 percent of the population but half of the coronavirus cases and 81 percent of the deaths. He noted the inequities that make it more challenging for people of color to adhere to social distancing, as only one in five African Americans and one in six Hispanics have a job that allows them to work from home.





But the surgeon general then went on to admonish these populations to “avoid alcohol, tobacco and drugs,” to take care, if not for themselves, for their “abuela” or “big mama.” People of color “need … to step up and help stop the spread so that we can protect those who are most vulnerable,” he said.





How can you stop the spread when you have to go to work, when you can’t afford to order food delivery, when you don’t have equal access to gloves and masks? Not to mention fear that many people of color feel at the idea of wearing a mask in public; it is an invitation to racial profiling.





Even knowing if you have the virus is more complicated for communities of color, given that many cases are asymptomatic and testing is not readily available. That will remain a barrier until mobile units are deployed into neighborhoods with rapid point-of-care testing devices.





So no, I have no interest in an old or new normal where these health disparities remain, where those born into poverty are blamed for their poor health outcomes and the burden for fighting a virus is disproportionately placed on the have-nots.





What we need is a better normal, where all lives are valued. Where public health interventions are immediately deployed to solve national crises, not just when and where it affects White America. Where the National Institutes of Health, Department of Education and Department of Agriculture work synergistically to eliminate food, health and educational disparities.





We need a better normal where the inherent brilliance of all segments of society is leveraged to solve our most pressing challenges and where the people who are affected have a seat at the table.





In this better normal, let’s take advantage of the fact that it is more cost-effective to prevent chronic diseases than to provide care for the sick. Let’s eliminate the preventable and social determinants of health and invest in making sure everyone has a lifetime of health.





Let’s never go back to normal.





Obasi, Ph.D., is associate dean for research and a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Houston College of Education. He is founder and director of the UH HEALTH — Helping Everyone Achieve A LifeTime of Health — Research Institute.