It didn’t take a global pandemic to remind Dr. Shereef Elnahal that people of color are facing health challenges beyond that of their white, more affluent and suburban counterparts. As president of University Hospital in Newark and a former state health commissioner, Elnahal has had a front row seat for the state’s health crises, from opioids to coronavirus.
“All of what you’ve been reading about, how people of color are disproportionately impacted because of their underlying conditions, but also because of a historical institutional racism factors, all those issues really hit us hard. Walking through the wards, almost everybody in our patient rooms was a person of color,” Elnahal said.
Camden County Health Officer Paschal Nwako isn’t shocked by what Elnahal reports.
“As of today, we have about 6,800 cases in Camden County, and out of that you have one-third of it from Camden City,” Nwako said.
Across New Jersey, blacks make up 13% of the population and almost 19% of COVID-19 deaths. Latinos make up almost 20% of the population, but account for 30% of the cases in New Jersey.
“What we are doing in Camden is to make sure that we go out to those communities,” Nwako said. “For instance, we’re using COVID-19. What we did is we started going to those neighborhoods that had the highest number of positives and we set up our stations there. We started giving out face masks. We started getting out information about testing sites. We started giving out food.”
Because with thousands unemployed in the county because of the economic lockdown, food insecurity has been laid bare, even among those who – three months ago – were employed and able to sustain themselves in service jobs at casinos, grocery stores, retailers and restaurants.
“The fact that people are concentrated in these jobs, sure, I mean this is long-term going back decades and decades that people of color, not just in New Jersey but throughout America, are again disproportionately concentrated in low-wage work,” said Christopher Hayes, a labor historian at Rutgers University.
Elnahal says government has a role to play, obviously, but institutions like his, built in the 60s and responsible for displacing a thriving community of color, are responsible for changing current conditions too.
“We have to be the quarterbacks, even if we don’t have the resources or expertise ourselves in solving some of these upstream problems, because at the end of the day, these lives end up in our emergency room. When folks reach ground zero, they go to two places, either jail or the University Hospital emergency room,” Elnahal said.
And that’s no fair choice for a community struggling with a mountain of challenges – including, now, a global pandemic not of their making.