Gov. Roy Cooper, at the podium, and NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen. (Photo by Dept. of Public Safety) Gov. Roy Cooper
Gov. Roy Cooper, at the podium, and NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen. (Photo by Dept. of Public Safety)

Cooper assembled the panel of lawmakers, researchers and advocates last month with the novel  coronavirus taking a disproportionate toll on Black and Latino communities. 

Gov. Roy Cooper, en route to a low-income, eastern North Carolina county battered by Isaias this week, told members of a new state task force combating racial and economic inequities Tuesday that their work is more important than ever. 

“It’s not lost on me that many of our marginalized communities are taking a double hit right now with natural disasters and the pandemic,” Cooper said. “The COVID pandemic has transformed the lives of everybody, but it’s particularly devastating to those working on the front lines keeping our economy going, people who don’t have access to health care and those who are at risk due to pre-existing conditions.”

Cooper was on his way to Bertie County, where a tornado spawned by Isaias killed two, when he addressed the Andrea Harris Social, Economic, Environment and Health Equity Task Force

Bertie, a shrinking eastern NC county of about 19,000, is an example of the type of inequities the task force will take on in the coming months. More than 60% of its residents are Black, according to the US Census Bureau, and nearly a quarter of residents live below the poverty line. 

The task force—named for late North Carolina civil rights activist Andrea Harris—was established in July under Executive Order 143 to address the social, environmental, economic, and health disparities in communities of color disproportionally impacted by the novel coronavirus.

“We need to work to eliminate these disparities and promote equity and provide opportunity to our communities of color,” Cooper said. 

Cooper pointed to the fact that while Black citizens make up 20% of North Carolina’s population, they account for 33% of deaths from COVID. And while Hispanic/Latino North Carolinians represent 10% of the state’s population, they account for a disproportionate 44% of COVID cases, a point some leaders have attributed to members of the Latino community working in hard-hit sectors such as meat processing, construction, and in restaurants. 

“When we look at systemic racism, the barriers to employment, it’s not surprising this virus is ravaging these communities,” Cooper said. “We’re concentrating our relief efforts and testing to underserved, marginalized communities, but I know we need to do a lot more.”

‘We have to challenge each other’s thinking.’

Secretary of the N.C. Department of Administration and Task Force Chair Machelle Sanders  led the meeting of task force members, which includes state legislators, health care professionals, business leaders, educators and faith leaders. 

Sanders outlined task force objectives, including enhanced patient engagement, access to health care, economic opportunities in business development and employment, environmental justice and inclusion, and creating educational opportunities for communities of color. She challenged the group to be bold and formulate tangible, actionable solutions to address the concerns of these underserved communities.

“We have to challenge each other’s thinking,” Sanders said. “Collaboration is when we bring different ideas, different ways of thinking, different perspectives, and there’s a healthy tension in the conversation that will lead to a better result and outcome than any party in the conversation could come up with alone.”

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen pointed to the intersection of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement’s efforts for social justice as a significant turning point for North Carolina.

“There’s an important moment in history that has come together with the crisis of COVID and the swell of attention to racial injustice,” Cohen said. “I think this task force is more important than ever.”

Cooper echoed that sentiment and pledged his support to the task force, which is expected to develop proposals for the governor’s office. The panel has no published schedule for their proposals yet, as it was formed just weeks ago, but Cardinal & Pine will provide updates once they do.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Cooper added. “… We want to make sure each and every North Carolinian has the opportunity to get a good education, have health care, put more money in their pockets and live a life of abundance.”