COVID-19’s disparate impact in Ohio
In late 2019 global health authorities began warning of an outbreak of what appeared to be a new respiratory virus. The virus later became known as the 2019 novel coronavirus, and the illness caused by the virus is COVID-19. The virus rapidly spread across the world, including in Ohio.
While the death and devastation from this pandemic has been widespread, not everyone has felt the effects the same. On May 8, 2020, the Ohio Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights adopted a proposal to undertake a study of civil rights and equity in the delivery of medical and public services during the COVID-19 pandemic in Ohio. I served on the Ohio Advisory Committee that conducted the study, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently released the advisory memorandum that the committee wrote and voted to approve.
The contents of the advisory memorandum are based primarily on testimony the committee heard during public meetings held via video conference and related testimony submitted in writing during the designated public comment period. Among the committee’s findings are that Ohioans in federally protected civil rights categories have suffered disparate impact in the delivery of medical and public services during the COVID-19 pandemic and that the COVID-19 pandemic has not yet been effectively controlled or contained.
The committee also concluded that, while the coronavirus pandemic has impacted nearly every Ohioan in some way, many troubling disparities persist in the incidence and severity of infection. For example, African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos have significantly higher rates of mortality from COVID-19 than any other racial or ethnic group. These disparities are likely the result of intersecting risk factors that disproportionately affect people in several federally protected categories, including race, color, disability status and age.
Further, the committee issued a series of recommendations in the advisory memorandum, including that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights advise Ohio’s governor to provide better training and education to persons who deliver medical and public services about the particular needs of particular groups, including but not limited to persons with disabilities, and that the governor issue a public reminder to persons who deliver medical and public services that disparate impact in the delivery of medical and public services is illegal, and that discrimination need not be intentional to constitute a violation of anti- discrimination law.
The committee likewise recommended that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommend that both the U.S. Congress and the Ohio Legislature provide additional funds to address the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the Ohio Department of Health develop a plan for future emergencies and how to reach vulnerable communities. A complete account of the committee’s findings and recommendations is available in the advisory memorandum: www.usccr.gov/files/2021/02-08-OH-COVID-Health-Dispari
By law, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has established an advisory committee in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia to advise the Commission of civil rights issues in particular states. As Ohio Advisory Committee Chair Diane Citrino eloquently put it, the purpose of the advisory memorandum about the COVID-19 pandemic in Ohio is to provide evidence-based “suggestions to create greater equity throughout our state as we all struggle to deal with this disease and its effects on our communities.”
Scott Douglas Gerber is a law professor at Ohio Northern University and an associated scholar at Brown University’s Political Theory Project. The views expressed herein are Professor Gerber’s alone and do not reflect the views of the Ohio Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, or the federal government.