The pandemic was only a month old in Clark County when Benita Presley, 60, assumed her role as the health committee chair for NAACP Vancouver in April.
“She definitely stepped into the fire,” is how Bridgette Fahnbulleh, NAACP Vancouver president, put it.
As the chair of a committee that has roughly 25 members, Presley was in general to focus on combating health disparities that exist in medicine for people of color, Fahnbulleh said.
But when the pandemic came, much of the committee’s work had to be temporarily de-prioritized to focus on coronavirus, the most immediate threat.
Just like with maternal and infant mortality rates, blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and a number of other health ailments, Black people are experiencing negative health disparities when it comes to COVID-19.
According to data from The COVID Tracking Project, Black people make up a little more than 12 percent of the U.S. population, but account for close to 19 percent of the country’s COVID-19 cases and more than 21 percent of the country’s coronavirus deaths.
The statistics are similar for Latino folks, as well, as they account for 17.8 percent of the U.S. population but make up nearly 29 percent of the country’s cases and 21 percent of the country’s deaths.
The disparities are less pronounced for Black people in Clark County, as they account for 1.5 percent of COVID-19 cases locally and make up about 2.5 percent of the county population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
But the statistics, complied by Clark County Public Health, are missing racial data for about 36 percent of the county’s cases, so it’s hard to get a definitive picture around COVID-19 disparities for Black people in Clark County.
Barriers to COVID-19 testing for Black folks might also lessen the number of confirmed cases.
The Latino population has accounted for 23 percent of the county’s COVID-19 cases and makes up a little more than 10 percent of the overall population.
COVID-19 testing sites more typically reside in whiter neighborhoods, making it more difficult to acquire a test, a barrier that leads to poorer health outcomes and also hinders disease surveillance.
Presley and the NAACP have helped organize free drive-thru testing for the Black community in Clark County. She hosts a weekly local radio show on KBMS Radio with a health focus and has gotten the word out about the virus and the importance of wearing a mask and staying physically distanced.
Fahnbulleh said she has seen the impact of Presley’s work. Presley has been able to connect with folks over the message that you need to follow guidelines, not just for yourself, but for your community, your family and your friends. If “Benita tells us this is real, this is real,” Fahnbulleh said.
“Her voice has credibility in the Black community and people trust her. I think that’s needed,” Fahnbulleh said. “Everybody has been eager to work with her.”
A history of activism
When it comes to Presley’s credibility, good friend Debbi Hendrickson says Presley knows what she’s talking about.
“She’s actually lived it,” Hendrickson said.
Presley is 23 years sober and a domestic violence survivor. She’s navigated a number of trauma and health concerns, all while being active in the lives of her seven children and 14 grandchildren.
Activism was instilled in Presley from a young age when she was growing up in Northeast Portland, she says. One of her grandmothers, Katie Brown-Williams, was a missionary, a grassroots activists and someone who taught her grandchildren history that wasn’t taught in school.
“She was always giving us our history, Black history,” Presley said.
Now Presley is using her perseverance and knowledge to help Vancouver. She sees her leadership role as a way to heal racial divides and bring the community together.
Presley said she uses her story to help others through difficult times. She listens but does not judge. She likes to meet people where they are at and walk their journey with them.
“The projects I take on, there’s not a lot of joy and happiness in them, but I want people to know you can overcome anything,” she said.
Hendrickson is not surprised at the success Presley has been able to have in just six months as health chair.
Hendrickson recalled how people would come up to Presley when she was eating dinner at a restaurant and thank her for help she had offered years ago.
“For her to do what she’s done and be a mentor to others is very powerful,” Hendrickson said.
While Presley’s focus is on coronavirus at the moment, she’s eager to tackle other health disparities and issues around discrimination in health care, something Presley has experienced herself.
“I feel less than. I feel like I’m not worthy. I feel helpless,” Presley said of discrimination. “You’re supposed to feel better when you go to the doctor, hopefully.”
Systemic racism and health
Black people can experience “weathering” of the body from racism.
Weathering, a term coined by Arline Geronimus, a health researcher at the University of Michigan, is the process of stressors encountered by living in a racist society that break down the physical body and erode health over time, leading to poorer health outcomes.
It’s a scientific term that shows health disparities for Black people arise not only from lacking access to care, but also directly from racism.
As Fahnbulleh said, the NAACP is ready for Presley to focus on health issues besides coronavirus as soon as possible, because every other negative health disparity still exists during this pandemic.
Presley grasps that reality.
“If I were to die, it would probably be because of the stress on my mind and body and from all these other issues,” she said. “That would probably kill me before COVID.”