For #BuildItBackBetter, NationSwell asked some of our nation’s most celebrated purpose-driven leaders how they’d build a society that is more equitable and resilient than the one we had before COVID-19. We have compiled and lightly edited their answers.
The challenges of 2020 are our chance to address the longstanding inequities that, for far too long, have cutoff opportunities that prevent everyone from living longer and healthier lives. This is our chance to innovate. It’s our chance to be bold and courageous as architects and innovative pioneers of our individual and collective future. It’s time that we fully embrace our humanness and interconnectivity — and build something new and better.
To build it back better, we must ensure equitable access to resources to address the pandemic, and we must rebuild a health and social system that is more equitable than it was before. Every conversation we have about public health and economic recovery in the wake of COVID-19 must include a discussion of equity, because inequity reaches every system in our society.
Solutions must be as expansive as the problem. They must involve all sectors — public, private and non-profit.
On the private sector side, it is important to make the business case for creating healthier communities. Employers, for example, should be motivated to improve the social determinants of health in their own region, thus fostering a healthier pool of workers and keeping health care costs down. At the community level, solutions must come out of collaboration between community members, decision makers and experts; a community doesn’t need to be told what their problems are, nor should it have a solution thrust upon them without their input.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed longstanding economic and racial inequities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black and Native American people are five times as likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 as White people, and the hospitalization rate for Latinx people is four times the rate for their White counterparts. This may be in part because those deemed “essential workers” are disproportionately people of color — putting them at greater risk of contracting the virus.
The structural inequities that cause many of these health disparities did not happen by accident, so we must make racial equity a central part of our plans to confront COVID-19 and recover from its economic aftereffects. We must be deliberate in our efforts to ensure the solutions to this health crisis do not uphold existing patterns of racial disparities. Communities of color shouldn’t be contracting and dying from COVID-19 — and other diseases and disorders — at rates higher than anyone else. Communities of color shouldn’t be living shorter lives than their counterparts just a few blocks away. And no one should be dying of hunger, experiencing homelessness, poor health and a speedier death as a result of loneliness as an older American.
Residents of Harlem deserve to live to celebrate their 90th birthday as much as residents of the Upper East Side do. Everyone in Baltimore should live well into their eighties or longer. That should be our expectation, and those are the expectations we must build systems and supports to deliver upon.
We all have a role and responsibility to advance equity and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live a longer, healthier and productive life. It is important to make equity part of the conversations you’re having with your family, friends, co-workers and holding your leaders whether that is in private industry or the public sector accountable to address the COVID-19 crisis. These are critical and foundational measures of success.
The danger is that we will think these problems are too big to solve. But no matter how tired we are of hearing bad news, we must continue to believe that a better future is possible. We must act with purpose, unite against hate and lead others to do the same. I believe in fighting against all attempts to divide us, and I will continue to fight against any form of racism in thought, word, action, practice, or policy.
We are at a turning point. On one hand, we can continue to operate with a patchwork approach whereby inequities continue to fester and harm the most vulnerable among us. Or we reimagine and not just rebuild but rebuild our communities better in ways that expand opportunities for all.
I’m ready to take the second path. You with me?
Dr. Jean C. Accius is Senior Vice President for AARP Global Thought Leadership. He is a nationally recognized thought-leader on aging, longevity, health and long-term care policy. Find out more about his work with AARP here.