The People is our section for all opinions concerning Black Chicago. In this opinion piece, Chicago Urban League president Karen Freeman-Wilson discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening health care disparities for Black people. Submit your opinion to

Black History Month – a time to educate and reflect on the significant role African Americans have played in our country – comes this year with a special poignancy. As an advocate, I often reflect on our history, because it is the key to understanding and addressing current racial inequities surrounding the African-American community. 

One of the biggest inequities involves access to health care, which is why our battle against COVID-19 has forced us to reflect on history every day, not just in the month of February. The U.S. has a long history of providing inequitable health care in Black and brown communities, as well as less access to healthy food and well-paying jobs. The pandemic is worsening these disparities, making it especially hard for sufferers from chronic diseases like kidney failure that were already hitting communities of color the hardest.

The Illinois Kidney Care Alliance (IKCA) works with African-American organizations such as Chicago Urban League, West Side United and One Health Englewood to reach and further educate some of our most vulnerable – those who suffer from End-Stage Renal Disease (ESRD), another name for kidney failure. 

The Alliance was formed to raise awareness of the needs of people who suffer from this disease. Since the beginning of the pandemic, rates of ESRD have risen and are expected to keep rising; they remain higher among African Americans than among whites.

Those whose kidneys no longer function properly have two options for survival: Dialysis or a kidney transplant. Although African Americans only make up 13 percent of the country’s population, we account for 35 percent of the 650,000 Americans who live with kidney failure. We are four times more likely to develop kidney disease, and twice as likely to develop diabetes. Almost half of Black Americans suffer from high blood pressure. These are all comorbidities that make the coronavirus more severe – and more deadly.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), kidney disease of any stage increases your risk for severe illness from COVID-19. The virus, in turn, has created a surge in the need for dialysis. Those on dialysis tend to have weaker immune systems, making it harder to fight infections.


COVID-19 disproportionately affects African Americans — the novel virus devastates individuals with preexisting conditions and comorbidities — yet according to the Chicago Tribune, vaccine rollout in Chicago showed a worrying trend. Black and Latino communities hit the hardest by the virus lagged far behind neighborhoods on the Near North Side and downtown in receiving the vaccine. 

Disproportionate access to healthcare and health information is nothing new to our community. Racial injustice persists in our health care system. For that reason, the education of our families, friends, and neighbors should remain a top priority. In that respect, IKCA performs a vital function for members of our community who are at a higher risk in the COVID era. We must continue to educate our community on how to erase the healthcare inequities we face.

is the President & CEO of the Chicago Urban League.