Blacks Remain Essential Amid Economic and Health Disparities

COMMENTARY
by K. Dawn Rutledge, Ed.D.

It has been almost a year since the nation was put on high-alert that a deadly virus was swarming among us. The discovery of coronavirus last winter prompted lockdowns and stay-at-home orders throughout the country to help mitigate the spread of the virus.

K. Dawn Rutledge, Ed.D.

Many businesses were forced to implement telework structures to keep employees socially distanced. Other businesses turned to furloughs, while others even eliminated jobs in their organizations altogether. 

But there were many workers who did not have the luxury of staying at home. They continued to show up despite the uncertainties and confusion around the virus’ transmission. 

They were deemed “essential,” and while much of the world remains slow in returning to normal, they have kept going. 

It has been said that when white America catches a cold, Black America catches pneumonia. In the case of COVID-19, which has devastated many communities and resulted in nearly 400,000 deaths, unfortunately, Black folks still find themselves feeling the brunt of the pain. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, when Black people contract COVID-19, they die almost three times the rate of their white counterparts from the disease. Yet, they continue to be at greater risk – not because they want to – but because so many must work in environments where social distancing and limited contact are unrealistic. They overwhelmingly serve in roles deemed “essential;” and too often work more than one job to make ends meet. They are putting their lives on the line during the pandemic serving in jobs that if unfilled would surely shatter America’s already fragile economy. 

Our Black workers are overrepresented in jobs that put them and their families at risk – and often fall at the bottom of the pay scale in earning a decent living wage. According to a report from the Brookings Institute, Black workers occupy 13 percent of all jobs across the economy, but the make up approximately 19 percent of essential jobs that pay less than $16 an hour. 

Millions of Black workers are nursing assistants or home health aides. These essential but undervalued jobs – held by a disproportionate number of Black workers, especially Black women – often pay poverty wages and offer few, if any, benefits such as paid leave or health insurance, reports the Brookings Institute. Beyond these positions, Black essential workers are largely grocery and convenience store clerks, automotive specialists, fast food workers, bus drivers, social workers and even educators. 

Even more, many Black Americans who work in other types of non-essential positions, are finding themselves unemployed. Employment loss traditionally hits hard across racial lines with Black workers typically seeing spikes in unemployment first. The “last hired, first fired” repeat seems to have some validity. The economic hardships created by this pandemic has only provided a stark reminder that there are glaring health disparities in this country and there is still have much work to do if Black folks want to close the significant gaps that impede our progress toward true economic and health parity.

It is clear and evident COVID-19 has affected everyone in some way, but the impact on Black Americans has been much more discriminatory. But that is no surprise considering the historical implications from the many other societal ills Black Americans have suffered. Black folks have always been essential in this country. We built this country; we continue to build it. But carrying the weight is back breaking. 

For those who are fortunate enough to work from home, please be kind and respectful to our essential and frontline workers. They are unnecessarily at-risk when we fail to do our part such as the simple courtesy of wearing a mask in public places.

Our Black brothers and sisters need to know that we care – and as a community – we will get through the very real and trying times of this pandemic just as we have so many other challenges throughout our history. 

To our essential workers, we salute you!

Saluting One of Tennessee’s Essential Workers:

Nurse Practitioner Shares Importance of Getting Vaccinated

By Sandra Long Weaver
Tribune Editorial Director

NASHVILLE, TN — “Relieved,” is how Nashville Centennial Hospital nurse practitioner Jessica Friley Ensley describes how she feels after receiving her second dose of the Pfizer vaccination against COVID-19.

It’s been a challenging journey for the last 10 months,” Ensley said of her work on the front lines working with patients who have contracted

Nurse Ensley at home without her protective gear.

the virus. “I am feeling more hopeful the things will begin to turn around.”

Ensley, 32, received her first dose on Dec. 18 and her second dose on Jan. 8.  “I had no side effects with the first dose and just a sore arm with the second dose,” she said.

She said she has seen patients of all ages, all ethnicities battling the virus. They can come in one night on her shift, “be placed on a ventilator and two nights later they are gone.” She has also seen patients stay in the hospital for two months or more fighting the virus, she said.

“It is critically important that the Black community get the vaccine. We are sicker if we contract it,”Ensley said of her experiences treating patients.

Getting the vaccine “gives us a chance to improve our survival rate,” she emphasized.

“It is amazing the I have not been sick” because the virus is so contagious, she said. She wears two pairs of gloves, an isolation gown, an N95 mask, a face shield, a face mask and shoe coverings. “Patients can only see your eyes,” she said.

When she comes home at night, she goes through a routine to protect her husband too. “I have a set up in the garage. I put the scrubs and

Centennial Hospital Nurse Practitioner Jessica Friley Ensley in all of her protective gear for her night shift. Patients can only see her eyes.

jacket in the hamper. I wipe down everything with lysol including the car. And then I go straight into the shower.”

Below is Ensley’s personal statement about why she felt it was important for her to be among the first to receive the vaccine and why she wants others to know how important it is to get vaccinated. 

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t make up my mind about getting the vaccine until a few days before I received it. I talked to Internal Medicine and OB/GYN physicians as well as other healthcare colleagues and it provided some reassurance.”

“I decided to get the vaccine because: I expose my husband often and he has been gracious dealing with my obsessive behavior. I haven’t

hugged my parents, uncle, or Nana in 11 months. I miss choir rehearsal and going to church. I miss my girls. I’ve experienced personal loss. My coworkers and I have been fighting this for a long time, and some have contracted COVID—we’ve been lucky everyone has recovered. Tough decisions are being made because there aren’t enough ventilators or ECMO.” 

“Black people are more likely to die from COVID, and it’s my hope that seeing a Black person getting vaccinated will encourage some trust in science and the medical community.”

“It’s been a challenging 10 months, and there are difficult days ahead. This moment gave me a glimmer of hope. I’m happy to keep anyone interested updated. Please wear your mask and keep safe distance. We’ll get through this together.”