TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.— A group of local advocates and Tompkins County officials gathered Tuesday via Zoom to discuss the unique challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented to different marginalized communities, spanning topics from race, economic status and myriad facets of healthcare access. 

The panel was officially titled “Human Rights & Public Health: Intersecting Pandemics: COVID-19, Racism, Addiction & Poverty,” and will be held throughout the next several months until the end of 2020, and possibly beyond.

Attendees included Public Health Director Frank Kruppa, Dr. Judy Griffin of REACH Medical Clinic, Dr. Kenneth Clarke of Tompkins County Office of Human Rights, Cornell University Government professor Jamila Michener, Dr. Melissa Dhundale, the medical director of Ithaca City School District and Richard Rivera, who works for Tompkins County Opportunities, Alternative and Resources (OAR). Each addressed a topic directly related to their work and how it has interacted with the pandemic thus far. 

Kruppa began with an overview of the pandemic’s public health impact, noting that one particular area where Tompkins County is seeing worrisome rises is in food insecurity rates throughout the area: 15 percent of the population is projected to be food insecure in 2020 by local experts, including 23 percent of all children in the county, both representing increases from 2019. 

One way that the pandemic has played out in Tompkins County that is significantly different from other parts of the country is that marginalized populations locally have not been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, as infection rates have mostly adhered to overall population shares. 

Michener followed him with an analysis of the pervasive ways race and racism have permeated throughout the last several months of the coronavirus pandemic, talking about how there are plenty of different ways that institutions fail the general public, but that those failures are acutely present among the community of Black and Brown people. She turned nationwide for her points, focusing on the increased burdens that those communities have faced. 

“If we look another level beneath that, we get to racism, and that’s where we get to public policy and institutions,” Michener said. “That’s where it’s about racism, but not about race. […] If we get to racism, we can figure out where institutions and public policy come into play.”

Michener connected housing discrimination directed at Black and Hispanic communities, as well as lower-wage jobs and how those two things, among others, can coalesce into putting disadvantaged communities at greater risk for illness, helping to explain some of the outsized impacts COVID-19 has had on those same communities. 

Griffin then spoke about some of the transitions that REACH has made during the pandemic, including emphasizing telemedicine appointments and plans to continue to do so. With their focus on people with substance use issues, she spoke about how the financial downturn and social isolation requirements have had a brutal impact on that population, poised to drive them further into addiction. Rivera also addressed the work being done with the homeless population, which has some overlap with REACH’s clientele—one of the most impactful programs that have started under COVID-19 is telemedicine delivery to the Jungle, the homeless encampment near Southwest Park in Ithaca. 

“We find that when these individuals try to access the systems that are in place to help them, they seem to run into boundaries, they cannot meet the deadlines, they cannot meet the appointments, they cannot access it,” Rivera said. “The very system makes it so difficult for them to access it that they have problems.”

Griffin echoed that sentiment, saying she’s been “shocked” at times to realize how hard it can be for her clients to navigate systems to attain access to a variety of healthcare services. The panel also discussed the barriers to fixing plenty of problems, particularly in healthcare, under capitalism.

“If what you care about is getting people help, services and really essentially giving them the ability to live and exist, which is our theme here, we need to restructure and redesign how this is done, because it’s not working for people,” Griffin said. “And that is not easily achieved in a health system, or a social services system, that is profit-driven.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com