On March 31, as the United States was just in the beginning stages of understanding the threat COVID-19 posed, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo referred to the virus as “the great equalizer” in a tweet. He may have intended to convey that the virus, which many have called the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes, can make anyone severely sick, but, in effect, his words overrode long-standing medical evidence of racial and ethnic disparities in health outcomes. In reality, COVID-19 is a risk for all, but it’s a far greater threat for members of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities.
On reason might be “weathering,” a term coined by Arline Geronimus, ScD, a professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, to describe how Black people experience early health deterioration due to the stress caused by racism and social and economic adversity. The concept was first presented in Geronimus’s 1991 study, published in Ethnicity & Disease, and that study along with subsequent research has shown that various stressors can spark premature biological aging and may make Black people more susceptible to chronic and infectious diseases.
“What weathering does is it wears on your organs and body systems so you’re vulnerable to a whole array of problems. In fact, in weathered populations, people and families have multiple morbidities. They can be chronic diseases like hypertension or diabetes, but they can also be depression and anxiety…it can be joint pains. It can be autoimmune disorders like lupus…and now it’s COVID-19.”
“In weathered populations, people and families have multiple morbidities. They can be hypertension or diabetes, depression and anxiety, joint pains, autoimmune disorders, like lupus … and now it’s COVID-19.” —Arline Geronimus, ScD
Black Americans are experiencing the highest age-adjusted COVID-19 mortality rates: 3.6 times higher than white people, and also higher than that of Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx people, according to data compiled by APM Research Labs. This is especially alarming because these same at-risk groups are underrepresented in clinical trials for COVID-19 treatments, according to a paper recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
And weathering isn’t just caused by traditional health stressors, such as infrequent doctor visits or less access to nutritious food; it can be caused by the chronic stress associated with the experience of being Black, period. Consider the constant verbal and behavioral microaggressions Black people are subjected to; the expectation to take on the burden of educating non-Black people about racial inequality, especially in the workplace; and the tragically long list of racially motivated killings in this country. Though the compounded stressors weigh heavily on many communities, the load is particularly heavy for Black women.
But, says Dr. Geronimus, community-support programs can help to alleviate the effects of weathering. “Knowing you’re being taken care of by people who see you, who care about you, who see the world the way you do, share your cultural framework—that can be stress-reducing,” she says.
Black Girls Breathing is an excellent example of this type of program. Founded by breathwork practitioner Jasmine Marie, it’s a safe space for Black women to heal through guided meditation and breathwork focused on altering one’s breathing patterns for therapeutic benefits. Marie, who first learned about breathwork through her church, says it relieved her chronic stress, and proponents believe it can also help to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Amid the uprising of Black Lives Matter protests and mounting racial tensions, Marie has adjusted her business structure to make it even more accessible to Black women, who have been suffering for years. “Think about the decades and centuries of how, as a people, my people have been traumatized and have endured violence and been in a heightened awareness of survival mode, and how that has impacted our world,” Marie says. “When you get into this work, and you start doing the undoing in this space, you feel seen, you feel heard.”
As protests continue, participants and organizers—many, if not most, of whom are Black—remain on the frontlines despite the immediate risks included and longer-term implications of weathering. For these people, the healing justice movement offers an answer in terms of restoration: It’s a powerful framework that identifies how changemakers can holistically respond to generational trauma and violence. Healing-justice spaces remind marginalized communities of their ancestral practices and reconnect them with historical traditions and modalities that heal and sustain. Cara Page, a Black Indigenous queer femme organizer, built this framework as co-founder of the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective, and it provides help in collaboration with organizations on the ground.
Tamika Middleton, a member of the collective, has experienced the burnout that comes with community organizing. The South Carolina Sea Islands native, who has been an organizer for 18 years, discovered healing justice when she met Page after Hurricane Katrina (Middleton survived flood waters that devastated the New Orleans neighborhood where she was living). Middleton invites organizers to heal by naming what they’re experiencing, so it doesn’t make them sick down the line.
“How do we think about how we use our traditions as resistance?” asks Middleton. “Engaging in ritual and building altars—all of that is healing justice. Those are our traditions. So, we engage in bringing all of that into this moment…pulling on all of our tools and all of our resources to hold us.”
There’s now a global conversation about the ways oppressed people are rising up and centering collective healing, Middleton says. Can this movement—or practices like breathwork or other community programs that create safe spaces—undo centuries of trauma and reverse the weathering that affects Black people? No, but they’re a start. And as the pandemic and racial tensions persist, they serve as a reminder that it will take a holistic approach to tackle this crisis.