What is the Pandemic Teaching Us about Health Equity through a Racial Equity Lens?

April 21, 2020


Dr. Vanessa Walker Harris is the deputy secretary of health and human resources for Governor Ralph Northam. She also serves on RMHF’s Board of Trustees. As Chair of the RMHF Equity Taskforce, Dr. Walker Harris plays an essential role in helping us live into our mission to foster an equitable and healthy Richmond region.

As the pandemic continues to impact our community, we are disheartened, though not entirely surprised, by early data that suggests a disproportionate impact of COVID-19 by race.

We asked Dr. Walker Harris to share her thoughts on what this pandemic is teaching us about health equity through a racial equity lens.

Here is her response:

Limited testing capacity and incomplete demographic reporting mean we do not have a complete picture of who is being impacted by COVID-19 across the nation. However, several recent analyses of states, cities and counties show that African Americans are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. According to an AP analysis, African Americans account for more than 40% of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. This disparity can be attributed to systemic racism and inequity in access to care and economic stability.

Research shows that daily experiences of racism are associated with an increased risk of developing chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, and each of these conditions increases one’s vulnerability to COVID-19. Additionally, Black people are more likely to be uninsured and to report that their health conditions, including pain, are taken less seriously by healthcare professionals.

Lastly, African Americans may have more difficulty adhering to social distancing and stay-at-home orders, since they are overrepresented in professions such as nurse aides, grocery store clerks, emergency dispatchers and public transportation employees.

As we implement temporary policy changes to provide necessary relief to vulnerable populations experiencing disparate impact during this public health emergency, we should keep in mind how we might look to extend those policy changes over the long term or even enact true system fixes that get to the root of the inequities.

Dr. Vanessa Walker Harris is the deputy secretary of health and human resources for Governor Ralph Northam. Prior to her appointment, she served as director of the Office of Family Health Services at the Virginia Department of Health from 2015-2020. In that role, she provided strategic leadership and oversight of multiple teams whose work spanned nutrition, chronic disease and risk factor surveillance, injury and violence prevention, oral health promotion, and maternal and child health. Dr. Walker Harris also serves as a RMHF Trustee and Chair of the Equity Taskforce.


Health and racial equity during the COVID-19 pandemic is a multi-faceted issue. We’ve assembled a variety of resources, so that we may all begin to make sense of the data and start to discuss implications and responses in both the short and long-term.

Kaiser Family Foundation: Communities of Color at Higher Risk for Health and Economic Challenges due to COVID-19

Washington Post: As coronavirus spreads, the bill for our public health failures is due (RWJF) or The coronavirus is infecting and killing black Americans at an alarmingly high rate

Health Equity Initiative: COVID-19 and Health Equity Resources

Brookings: Why are Blacks dying at higher rates from COVID-19? or How to Reduce the Racial Gap in COVID-19 Deaths

Richmond Times Dispatch: Virginia’s data on how coronavirus affects minorities is incomplete; Northam says many medical providers aren’t reporting or Number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Virginia rises nearly 4 percent, to 5,274

USA Today: Black medical leaders: Coronavirus magnifies racial inequities, with deadly consequences

Urban Institute: COVID-19 Racial Health Disparities Highlight Why We Need to Address Structural Racism

Forbes: COVID-19 Reveals Racial Inequities In U.S. Healthcare System: Strategies For Solutions

NY Times: Virus Is Twice as Deadly for Black and Latino People Than Whites in N.Y.C.

ColorLines: Ring the Alarm: COVID-19 Presents Grave Danger to Communities of Color

AP: Outcry over racial data grows as virus slams black Americans

Policy Link: COVID-19 & Race: Commentary