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Jeffery Roman is an organizer and community strategist; Quinton D. Cotton is a health equity researcher trained as a social worker; and Walter J. Lanier is an attorney, higher education administrator and pastor of Progressive Baptist Church. In this piece, they discuss four critical issues that must be addressed in Milwaukee’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Wisconsin, and Milwaukee in particular, makes another worst list—this time for the number of persons testing positive for COVID-19, the novel coronavirus at the center of the current global health crisis.
At the time of this writing, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services has documented 2,112 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state. Local data documents 1,122 cases in Milwaukee County and 865 cases in the City of Milwaukee. These numbers grow daily upon the hour. Just like other devastating trends in Milwaukee—like high rates of infant mortality, cancer, sexually transmitted infections, poverty and low homeownership—COVID-19 further reveals entrenched health and social disparities in Milwaukee’s African American communities and all communities of color.
Across the country, governors, mayors and public health officials are playing a dangerous game of follow-the-leader. Failures in Washington, D.C., and statehouses to coordinate effective national and state level responses to COVID-19 have trickled down to local communities. The results are stagnant decision-making, early false messages of non-urgency, inadequate preparation and finger pointing.
In times of crisis, social anxiety is heightened, and strong leadership paired with timely accurate information and coordinated action steps to address the crisis are critical. Local officials in Milwaukee are nervous and have not effectively utilized or coordinated resources that could prove to be helpful like more effectively utilizing Common Council members as ambassadors; activating the reach and strength of neighborhood centers; and connecting a broader group of civic, social and volunteer organizations to emergency response efforts with a concrete strategy for mobilization and action.
We can do better and should do better. Four core issues must be addressed in Milwaukee to adequately respond to this crisis generated by the COVID-19 global outbreak: (1) leadership capacity, (2) public health infrastructure, (3) coordinated community response and (4) local assets and innovation.
Leadership capacity: Like any resilient city, especially in times of crisis, people need to have clarity about who is responsible for what and trust that their leaders are well-equipped to meet their basic needs. Unfortunately, Milwaukee’s track record isn’t one of strong, coordinated leadership to see us through this storm. While we have tremendous and diverse talent in the city, it is an accepted truth that Milwaukee is “super-siloed” across lines of race, class, gender, age, socioeconomic status, and even city of origin. Furthermore, even inside organizations, denominations, affiliations, etc., we have silos within our silos. Our history of collective, inclusive action is poor. Leadership in these times of uncertainty is crucial. The leadership needs to be confident, competent and radically inclusive; we need servant leadership that knows how to step forward and how to step back.
Now more than ever, Milwaukee needs leadership that can facilitate pulling together people with diverse strengths and lived experiences, and then focus and align stakeholders into roles that are suited for their skills and spheres of influence. And, because we are in a crisis, the action of leadership has to be done with humility and without pretense.
Those who are a little too humble may need to step forward with more confidence. Those who are a little too confident need to be willing to step back while not walking away and still genuinely support community efforts. Transparent, adaptive and accessible leadership, reflective and responsive to a fragile and underutilized community is what we need.
Public health infrastructure: The key role of public health is to protect the health and safety of the public at population or community level. This is achieved by: (1) surveillance and monitoring, including conducting health assessments and investigations; (2) prevention and education to stop disease onset and spread; (3) mobilizing community resources; (4) service provision and evaluation of those services, (5) policy development and (6) providing information to community residents and organizations that empower them to make healthy choices.
In Milwaukee, city and county officials have been slow to find their footing. It is unclear how the newly formed Board of Health for the City of Milwaukee can be utilized and what concrete actions are being discussed and implemented. COVID-19 is testing Milwaukee’s public health infrastructure and bringing to the surface cracks in our health systems and community-wide ability to respond to public health needs in times of crisis. One thing that is clear, the city and county alone are not appropriately equipped to address challenges of this magnitude.
At its core, public health infrastructure in any community consists of the richness and readiness of the people and systems within it. We all make up the public health system. However, strong effective leadership is needed to develop and activate appropriate and timely response strategies. Now is the time for the public, nonprofit, private and philanthropic sectors to harness their shared capacity and understand their critical role as Milwaukee’s public health line of defense faces off against this pandemic.
Coordinated community response: From the grassroots to the grass tops, various groups are responding to residents’ immediate needs while others are organizing to mobilize resources and widen access to services. Lots of work is happening to keep city residents safe and healthy, but efforts are siloed and disconnected. Strategy matters. Development of an effective mechanism for rapid response and problem-solving during public health crises such as disease outbreaks like COVID-19 requires infrastructure for cross-sector and cross-community coordination.
When response systems are overwhelmed, disjointed or inadequate, the most vulnerable people and neighborhoods in the community are the hardest hit. Coordinated community-based response to any crisis needs to be built upon a readily accessible public health emergency plan with an apparatus that people and systems can plug their talents, resources and leadership into and deploy to the right places. It is time to dust off and update Milwaukee’s plan in ways that draw on the richness of the people and systems with the capacity to lead and assist.
Local assets and innovation: Innovative community-designed responses to the short- and long-term impacts of COVID-19 on the health and socio-economic conditions of the city and surrounding areas’ residents are needed. Milwaukee is rich in credible and social-impact minded professionals, providers and creatives with reach into diverse communities.
They are invaluable assets that can be tapped to fill the need. While a more robust crisis response is developed, examples of immediate action steps to share information with Milwaukee residents and provide opportunities for stay-at-home activities include:
- A daily, public, visible, face (with a background in science) that provides “live” updates and motivates the community to be healthy, make good choices, and is reassuring that things will work out in time
- A beloved Milwaukee voice or duo moderating a fun and informational COVID-19 Jeopardy game to educate the public via public access television (provide an online version for persons who are unable to view live airing)
- A “Be Healthy and Smart Milwaukee” comprehensive public awareness campaign
- Community nurses demonstrating proper hand hygiene and delivering crash courses on cross-contamination via live stream
- Community chemists demonstrating how to safely make hand sanitizer in your home via the city webpage
- Community chefs with daily demonstrations on how to prepare tasty, nutritious and budget-friendly meals that stretch for individuals and families via social media
- Community artists delivering a musical concert or teaching painting techniques via social media
Milwaukee has all the talent, all the power and most (if not all) of the resources it needs to address this pandemic and mitigate its health and economic related impacts. But, we have not yet harnessed, organized and mobilized that power effectively. Now is the time.
Be strong, be safe, stay healthy Milwaukee. ‘
Let’s talk, Milwaukee
Join this trio of leaders for a virtual community discussion about these four and other critical issues that must be addressed in Milwaukee’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Topic: COVID- 19 – Milwaukee and a Better Response
When: 3 p.m. Tuesday, April 7