COLUMBUS — Governor Mike DeWine said Tuesday he plans to increase the state's efforts to improve health and economic disparities, saying race is "indisputably a factor."
"We should all be outraged that in the year 2020, in Ohio and in this country, there's still inequality of opportunity and there is still racism," DeWine said. "The coronavirus, this global pandemic, has laid bare our vulnerabilities."
He said that there are still "too many Ohioans who are living in the shadows of opportunity, too many Ohioans are still living at the margins."
DeWine said he believes it's his job to serve all the people of the state of Ohio, "seek out many opinions, many ideas" and "find solutions to the problems that are holding this state and too many of our citizens back?"
"Whether it is in the urban core of our cities or the hills of Appalachia, we have Ohioans, frankly, in every county who are not living up to their God-given potential, because they simply do not have the same opportunity as other Ohioans do. And that is wrong," DeWine said. "And we have a moral obligation, a moral obligation to strive every day to do something about it."
DeWine said it was about race but other things as well, including ethnic disparities, poverty and educational inequality, adding that the underserved and marginalized could include not only people of color but also the elderly or a young person or someone with a disability.
He cited a number of different areas in which there are disparities, including lead paint poisoning children, infant and maternal mortality, the drug epidemic, mental health services and implicit bias in law enforcement.
Amanda Woodrum, a senior researcher at Policy Matters Ohio, said the disparities we're seeing are "actually just showing flaws in our existing system" and exacerbating disparities that already exist.
"I think the bottom line is being poor is bad for your health, and so is racism," Woodrum said.
Woodrum said those two issues need to be tackled through policy changes.
All of this contributes to a disproportionate impact on black and brown Ohioans when it comes to COVID-19, and on minorities when it comes to other health and economic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes and asthma.
"This disparity [in heart disease] has been attributed to the impact of toxic stress from racism in everyday lives," Woodrum said, adding that it's stressful to deal with the racism that "people experience at the grocery store, at the doctor’s office, interacting with police. And all of that adds up and over the long run has impacts to our health."
With diabetes and asthma, she said, "all these underlying factors that already exist are the vulnerability factors for COVID, and I think that’s a big part of the reason you’re seeing a higher number or a higher proportion of COVID cases in the black community than in the white community, despite the fact that relatively few black Ohioans are even being tested for COVID."
Woodrum thinks the governor's Minority Health Strike Force will help by allowing lawmakers, many of whom are white and middle-class, to hear the experiences of minority Ohioans and those who are poor.
"We have to pay attention and we have to hold people’s feet to the fire to make it happen," Woodrum said.
Historically, she said, changing policy has been an uphill battle. But she thinks this moment in time might change that.
"We need to take advantage of that moment and do something now," Woodrum said.