Eric Adams (165061)
Credit: Twitter

The devastation wrought by COVID-19 is an indictment of our government and our health care systems, which were clearly ill-prepared to handle this crisis. But our public policy changes in response should go much further than how to treat the next pandemic when it arrives.

We must not only evaluate why this happened, but to whom it happened.

We know now that Americans with underlying health conditions represent nearly nine out of ten of our COVID-19 casualties, and we know that people of color are far more likely to have those conditions than other Americans. In Chicago, 70% of those who died from COVID-19 have been Black. Blacks and Latinos make up about half of the New York City population, and nearly two-thirds of COVID-19 deaths.

How did this happen? It’s no mystery. People of color are far less likely than their white brothers and sisters to have access to healthy food, quality healthcare, and opportunities to exercise. That leads to huge racial gaps in life expectancy and rates of chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart conditions. Viruses like COVID-19 feast on those impaired bodies.

We should all feel outraged by this deadliest form of inequality. Really, though, we should have been outraged long before COVID-19 struck.

Just a few years ago, I was one of those people of color in our country whose body was ripe for illness. Growing up as an African American in southeast Queens, my family ate big portions of heavy foods. Sweets were also not exactly discouraged.

My aunt died of diabetes, and so many of my family members had the disease that we referred to it as “sugar,” as Black folks often do. As a police officer, I chose cheap and easy fast food options like other working people.

One morning, years later in 2016, I woke up blind in one eye. Terrified, I went to the doctor, who grimly informed me that I had “full-blown” diabetes. My blood sugar was quadruple the normal level. He told me my vision would be permanently impaired and other health issues would follow. He told me this was common in Black people.

Dejected, I sought solutions. As Brooklyn’s borough president, and the representative of more than one million people of color, I was determined to prove that race did not have to be an early death sentence. After some research and eye-opening discussions with experts like Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr. at the Cleveland Clinic, I found a prescription to our problem, and it would have been clear to any American 100 years ago: eat quality, whole foods.

Sounds simple—yet Black and Brown New York City residents often have limited access to these types of foods, or the background and experience to easily turn them into meals. African American and Latino New Yorkers are much more likely to live in “food swamps” where these foods are not sold. As importantly, they are also less likely to be informed by health professionals about their benefits.

So my office started an all-out effort to fix these fatal inequalities. We pushed for “Meatless Mondays” and healthier lunch options in public schools. We are expanding access to healthy foods in supermarkets through our Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) initiative. Doctors, dietitians, and health coaches at our Bellevue Hospital healthy living program have helped hundreds of New Yorkers adopt healthy eating and stress management habits.

All cities around the country should start such programs, and New York City should greatly expand them. Of course, the solution to our racial health gap should also include better access to health care. But the focus should still be on prevention. Once treatment is necessary, we have already lost.

Today, thank God, I am healthy. Since that fateful day in 2016, I have lost 35 pounds and shed all diabetes symptoms by switching to a plant-based diet and mindfulness practices, including yoga and meditation. I have no COVID-19 symptoms so far.

Tragically, I cannot say the same for so many of my fellow Black and Brown Brooklynites and New Yorkers, who are suffering disproportionately as this virus ravages our proud city.

It did not have to be this way. Let the unequal racial impact of this disease also yield a positive reckoning and launch a revolution in how we eat and live, and how we care for each other. Let this pandemic be the last time African Americans and Latino Americans went into a war for their lives without armor.

Eric Adams is the Brooklyn Borough President.