By Erica Techo
University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Nursing Associate Professor and President of the National Black Nurses Association Martha Dawson, DNP, RN, FACHE, was a panelist on a recent workshop hosted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
The “COVID-19 and Black Communities” workshop included several sessions discussing the scope of COVID-19, its disproportionate impact on Black communities and treatment and policy implications. Dawson participated in the fourth session of the day, “Community Response and Community Resilience,” alongside NAACP National Board Member Scot X. Esdaile; Olin College President Gilda Barabino, PhD, and Morehouse School of Medicine President Valerie Montgomery Rice, MD.
Held on June 23, the workshop also included discussions on social justice, systemic and institutional racism, and social determinants of health and how these factors impact the life and health of Black Americans.
“This was definitely a timely subject, and the panel provided an opportunity to focus on what some individuals have called ‘the second pandemic,’” Dawson said. “When we witnessed the death of Mr. Floyd, it brought up so many latent emotions and feelings of the many struggles we’ve had to go through. Being able to address racial disparities and the impact of COVID-19 is important, and I was glad to address these topics in this new context under the Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.” She noted that this forum brought together physicians, scientists, researchers, and social advocates to address the complexity of COVID-19 and the lived experiences of African Americans/Blacks in the US.
It is important to note that a lot of these conversations have taken place in Black families and communities for years and generations, Dawson said. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has heightened awareness of how a health crisis can disproportionately impacts people of color through job loss, wage loss, the technology gap and more. Factors such as social distancing and quarantine have produced an environment where more people have paid attention to protests and media coverage of police brutality and the deaths of Black individuals, thereby bringing more people into the conversation, Dawson added.
“Systemic racism and racial disparities have been going on for a long time and negatively impacted Black and brown communities, but we’ve finally gotten into a situation and event that heightens awareness of health care disparities in this country,” Dawson said. “When we were able to visually see a man that was murdered by someone else, that pushed the conversation past the disproportionate impact of COVID-19. It showed ‘OK – we still have to deal with the institutional, structural racism impacting this country.’ These two conversations are intertwined and build on each other.”
The panel discussed how Black workers have remained on the front line of the pandemic in hourly jobs at warehouses, box stores and industrial plants, oftentimes without appropriate protective equipment. Comorbidities such as heart disease, diabetes and other conditions are also more prevalent in African Americans, putting those individuals at higher risk of contracting COVID and facing lasting health issues. Dawson noted that poor health outcomes in Blacks are directly related to social injustice and systemic racism in education, employment, housing and where we live. Esdaile noted that having Black health care providers is important to build trust in communities and to make sure Black communities gain accurate information about health and health care. “We have to do a better job in making sure the local system and the beauty salon can hear from you all and can trust the information they’re getting from you all,” Esdaile said.
As President of the National Black Nurses Association, Dawson said this community presence is at the core of what the organization does. That community connection continues to be important during the pandemic. “Thank goodness we were in the community prior to the pandemic, so that when the community saw our nurses out there, no one said, ‘So who are you and where did you come from?’” Dawson said. “Our mission is to help develop African American nurses and to support them so that they are able to go out and serve in their communities. But in addition to serving the community, NBNA is also an advocacy group, so we are out there supporting significant policy changes. As we educate our communities, we know that education is not always enough. You also need to look at policies, laws and practices.”
For anyone who joined the workshop or watched the panel, Dawson hope is that they know these conversations are just the beginning.
“The first thing I hope they took away is this is a conversation that is continuing and needs to continue,” she said. “We as a nation and a society cannot afford to start a new conversation or simply restart the conversation on racial disparities and injustice every time there is a media event or there is a national disaster. There needs to be a massive individual desire and commitment to change.” She noted that we the US is going to survive as a nation, we have to change.
A full video of the panel is available here, with Dawson’s panel beginning at 5 hours and 6 minutes.
Dawson also is a two-time graduate of the UAB School of Nursing, having earned her BSN and MSN from the School in 1976 and 1981, respectively.