Updated: Sep 10, 2020
Strengthening the overall health of communities through effective collaboration and prevention
As 2020 continues, the COVID-19 pandemic has become a way of life. Across the globe, people are engaging in novel routines that these unprecedented times demand to stay healthy, gainfully employed, and connected, and to navigate the roller coaster of emotions. Compounding the personal rigors of managing daily lives is the increasing scarcity of community resources on which people depend. Community leaders and government officials are scrambling to determine the most efficient and effective ways to assist people during a crisis with no apparent end, facing decisions that were, up until this point, not part of the local planning process. The funds required to support this heightened level of need are insufficient at the local government level, straining budgets for years to come.
Although disparities in resource distribution have always run deep across our communities, the pandemic has exposed and further exacerbated these inequities. Rates of infection are higher in lower income and more populated areas, increasing the contagion risk. Available assistance to disadvantaged communities tends to focus more on immediate life and death concerns rather than strategies to prevent the enduring economic, medical and mental health damage that will likely be suffered by those with preexisting scarcities in supportive resources. The evidence is clear that racial and ethnic minority groups are bearing the brunt of this pandemic due to disproportionate levels of poverty, less access to health care, preexisting conditions and other social determinants of economic, physical and emotional health outcomes (see figure 1). Lasting effects will be accrued in greater societal problems overall (United Nations, 2020).
Adding injury to insult, inequities have been further magnified by the social unrest in response to George Floyd’s killing and many other unarmed Black people. The ensuing protests signal that the lack of societal resolve to eradicate longstanding systemic racial bias has come to a boiling point. These crises are not unrelated, but rather a reflection of a syndemic that has taken an extreme toll on particular racial groups due to unchecked marginalization and ensuing disparities across multiple sectors of society.
A wake-up call for communities
In general, the current crisis is a giant wake-up call for communities to bolster stability and well-being for all as a way to more effectively and equitably provide needed services in general, and then better positioned to withstand the next pandemic. Government services are only effective if they first assist people who are most in need, which leads to more equity and goodwill among local citizens. Achieving this aim is not just a matter of having enough funds in government coffers to face global emergencies. It is critical to have well-functioning systems in place that encourage cooperation and coordination across local governments and community stakeholders to enable more effective and immediate ways to address problems as they arise.
For the sake of efficiency and averting poor outcomes, an on-going focus on prevention is also vital and more cost effective than reactive approaches. Long-standing evidence has established the impact preventive efforts can have in reducing common community issues, such as alcohol and drug abuse, criminal activity, chronic disease and mental health problems. An ongoing community focus on prevention will also lay the groundwork for improved well-being that, in turn, bolsters the ability to face new crises.
In this post, we describe four key aspects of strengthening the overall health of a community that are part of this ‘wake-up call.’
Collaboration across sectors
The mark of a cohesive and healthy community is when various sectors—including education, healthcare, child welfare, criminal justice, faith, volunteer groups and government entities—work together to solve local problems and serve the common good. This framework for tackling issues across domains addresses community concerns in a structured and cooperative manner. In places where there is little connection between sectors, there could be inconsistent, siloed or even redundant efforts to solve or prevent issues. Such collaboration makes even more sense in current times, where data systems can more readily be linked to track individual health records and needs.
While different sectors will always be overseen by different local entities, including private and public organizations, data systems and knowledge sharing can help providers, educators and government officials be cognizant of how public health issues are being addressed. The National Governors Association has highlighted examples of coordinated efforts underway in several localities throughout the nation, with objectives to both mitigate spread of the virus as well as to reduce disparities in its impacts. Several states have created multi-sector data systems, task forces and public-private partnerships to comprehensively assess the needs, more equitably allocate funds and resources, and develop new strategies with inputs from all major stakeholders. Knowledge about how issues are being handled can help community leaders to know how to more effe