• Erin Hegarty
    OCT 01, 2021

    Pandemic exposed ‘structural racism,’ Arwady says as aldermen call for more action to help Black Chicagoans

    Chicago Public Health Comm. Allison Arwady answers questions during a budget hearing on Thursday. 

    The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare a wide range of racial inequities among Chicagoans, and the leader of the city’s public health department hopes to address those issues as the city moves out of the pandemic, she said Thursday. 

    But some aldermen remain skeptical of city leaders’ abilities to take action to help Black Chicagoans whose life expectancy is far lower than white Chicagoans. 

    Chicago Department of Public Health Comm. Allison Arwady fielded an array of questions from aldermen during a Thursday budget hearing on her department’s proposed 2022 spending plan, which includes increased spending on violence prevention and mental health services. 

    “The truth is that before the pandemic, Chicago was not a place where everyone had the resources and opportunities to lead a healthy life,” Arwady said during her opening statement Thursday.  

    Even before COVID-19 overtook the city a year-and-a-half ago, each Black Chicagoan died “on average 9.1 years sooner than a white Chicagoan,” Arwady said, adding that life expectancy is now shrinking for all nonwhite racial and ethnic groups.  

    “That should not be normal, it should be unacceptable,” Arwady said, propping up the Healthy Chicago 2025 plan that her office unveiled last year.  

    The Chicago Department of Public Health earlier this year released its State of Health for Blacks in Chicago — described by city heatlh officials as a “data brief describing the health status of Chicago’s Black population and the root cause inequities disproportionately affecting the lives of Black Chicagoans.” 

    Arwady on Thursday described those root causes as deaths from chronic diseases, gun-related homicides, infant mortality, infectious diseases including HIV and COVID, and opioid overdoses.  

    The Healthy Chicago 2025 plan calls for “a focus on policy and system changes, aimed at improving the root causes of health, from housing to food access, including calling out and addressing structural racism,” Arwady told aldermen on Thursday, adding the city is incorporating “four key lessons” garnered from the city’s pandemic response to its work with 2022 budget investments. 

    The lessons include that “public health is about addressing root causes and thinking beyond physical health,”  Arwady said. 

    “Going forward, we all have an enormous opportunity to address not just what COVID has exacerbated, but the challenges that were there long before the pandemic,” Arwady said. 

    Ald. Leslie Hariston (5) pushed back against Arwady and challenged city officials to take more action to help Black Chicagoans rather than continuing to study the population. 

    “Black people in the city of Chicago, probably all over the United States, we've been studied and studied and studied, and our issues have been studied and studied and studied,” Hairston said. “Every study has proposed the same solution, even if it was actually exacerbated during COVID.” 

    For example, “poor communities” don’t have access to healthy food or education on healthy food, Hairston said, adding that you can’t tell people to eat healthy when they “haven't been eating healthy for generations.” 

    “I look at people’s shopping carts, I see the difference in the choices that they make, and that's something that is learned — that is generational,” Hairston said. “If you don't know what that means, if you don't know what that looks like, you can't conform to that...life expectancy is connected to that.” 

    A defensive Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11) asked Arwady to explain structural racism in the public health system, saying, "I don't think the mayor is a racist. I don't think I'm a racist...I don't think you're a racist." 

    Arwady told Thompson that the term structural racism isn't "much referring to individual beliefs or practices around race...more about the ways in which we have sometimes had policies that have led to inequitable outcomes," including historic practices like redlining. 

    Hairston and other Black aldermen including Ald. Greg Mitchell (7) and Ald. Pat Dowell (3) pushed public health officials to rethink their choices of community organizations to partner with on violence prevention initiatives, especially when it comes to smaller organizations already doing work in communities. 

    “I have an organization that is purported to do violence prevention in my neighborhood, that actually, I have no idea why they're in there,” Mitchell said. “It [is] historically a housing organization in a community that has this challenge...I have no idea why they were even given an opportunity to be labeled as doing any type of violence prevention in my community.” 

    Dowell added that sometimes Requests For Proposals are written “to exclude certain organizations or exclude certain communities.” 

    “In this next round of funding, that has to be really taken into consideration because we are not going to sit back anymore and let these dollars go to organizations that do not benefit our community,” Dowell said. “You have to rewrite those [Requests for Proposals].” 

    Additionally, Arwady said she “would expect to see some increases” in COVID-19 cases when winter comes, calling the coming months a “big question.” 

    Still, Arwady said she is impressed with how the city got through Alpha and Delta variant surges and said, "we are in a so much better place than we were last winter."

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