Across the United States, a story is being told all too familiar for me: Black people in cities across the country are contracting COVID-19 and dying at rates staggeringly higher than Whites.

The racial/ethnic disparities seen in COVID deaths require an approach, across C-suites and board rooms, tailored to addressing the underlying structural inequities that brought us here. 

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The virus has hit home for me in a very personal way.  My husband was born and raised in two of the hardest-hit cities, New Orleans and Detroit. My mother-in-law, who is from New Orleans, has been with us in Georgia for the past month. Meanwhile, her brother, whom she lives next door to in New Orleans, contracted the virus. He is on the mend but his recovery has been a frightening experience that included multiple hospital stays, blood clotting and near amputation. Like many others, he was initially turned away from the hospital and told he had pneumonia.

My New Orleans relative is not alone. The underlying conditions that put people most at risk for COVID are ones highly common in black communities. And a report released in early April by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation analyzed the underlying health conditions and social and economic factors that contribute to these startling numbers.

Across the country, the statistics are brutal: Black people make up a disproportionate share in 22% of U.S. counties, but comprise more than half of coronavirus cases and nearly 60% of deaths in those counties, according to a national study released in early May.

Van Jones, CNN Host and CEO of the REFORM Alliance, a criminal justice organization, wrote in a recent commentary: “As an African American man in my early 50s who battles high cholesterol, pre-diabetes and hypertension … I am someone whom COVID-19 could easily kill.”

Current corporate DEI efforts are not enough

While the numbers are disturbing, they are a manifestation of much deeper issues around diversity, equity and inclusion. What these stories don’t address is that it is the inequity at the top of our corporate structures that can lead to inequity at the bottom.

Lack of African American leadership in C-suites and boardrooms results in systemic failures. The result: More sickness, more misery, more death for black Americans.

What can corporations do to change this dynamic? Here’s where we start:

Yes, the stories continue to fill our news feed, making clear  COVID-19’s devastation of Black communities and lives. It’s not just a story of suffering communities, but one of transformational opportunities. Corporate leaders and companies across the country need to heed this wakeup call.

It’s time for them to seize this moment, acknowledge the tragedy of what is playing out in communities nationwide, and focus on organizational change. By using the steps outlined above, corporate leaders are capable to tackling the very structural inequities that have so long existed.

The late Bernard Tyson, who infused inclusion into the culture as CEO of health care giant Kaiser Permanente, would no doubt be leading such efforts were he still alive today.

Tyson once said: “Don’t ask permission to help improve the lives of the people and communities you’ve pledged to serve. Instead, march through the doors of red tape, make bold moves, and usher in access.” Those bold moves need to begin at the top, and they need to happen NOW.

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