These 7 Black Women Are the Unsung Heroes of the COVID Pandemic

In the health care and medical spaces critical to curbing COVID-19, seven Black women are playing both offense and defense against a crisis—stabilizing the same ground on which they blaze new trails.
By Patrice Peck
February 19, 2021

You might not see their names in headlines or their faces on TV, but Black women nationwide are central figures in the fight against COVID. They are leading vaccination efforts, chipping away at longstanding health inequities, and providing medical services for groups that have been particularly vulnerable to the pandemic—all while navigating disproportionate rates of unemployment, violence, and COVID infections in their own communities.

Federal and state data confirm that Black people in America are infected by, hospitalized for, and dying from COVID in high numbers across a variety of categories including ethnicity, class, and gender. High unemployment, domestic violence, food insecurity, police brutality, and other crises aggravated by the pandemic form symbiotic associations with the highly contagious disease that thrives amid underlying medical conditions often caused by these same crises.

Some of these women have received media attention and are celebrated in their respective fields. Most are underpaid and undervalued, unappreciated and unknown. More than one in three Black women work low-paying frontline jobs, accounting for more than 11% of the frontline workforce and 6.3% of the US workforce overall, according to an analysis by the National Women's Law Center. Black women are 26.1% of personal care aides, home health aides, and nursing assistants—worker who have risked their lives every day to provide care in places where the coronavirus thrives, like hospitals and nursing homes.

And yet Black women are proving to be as powerful and effective in turning the tide of the coronavirus pandemic as they were with achieving record voter turnout for President Joe Biden and Vice President Harris and leading Democrats to victory in the Georgia state Senate runoff elections.

Get to know these unsung COVID heroes: 7 very different women working in various corners of health and wellness who are taking on the coronavirus—and winning.

Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett, PhD

Credit: Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett/Wikimedia

As the scientific lead and only Black woman on the Coronavirus Vaccines & Immunopathogenesis Team at the National Institutes of Health, Corbett was at the helm of the world's first clinical trial of a COVID-19 vaccine and helped develop the Moderna vaccine, which was approved in December. Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, credited this viral immunologist for being "right at the forefront of the development of the vaccine." 

Now that two vaccines have been approved and mass vaccinations have rolled out nationwide, Corbett has packed her schedule with speaking engagements in communities of color to help convince skeptical folks that the vaccine is safe and effective. "I understand the intricate interlacing of science and health, particularly for disparities, and particularly for people of color," she told the journal Nature in a February 11 interview. "So it's near and dear to my heart. It's actually the reason vaccine development is important to me, and is where I chose to take my viral-immunology career."

Ala Stanford, MD

Credit: Marissa Weekes Mason/MWM Images

Dr. Ala Stanford's movement to save Black lives from the coronavirus began with a rental van. When she realized in early April that her fellow Philadelphians in predominantly Black neighborhoods faced disproportionately high rates of COVID and low rates of testing, this private practice pediatric surgeon secured a vehicle, supplies, and volunteers—cobbling together a scrappy free mobile testing site that would soon become known as the Black Doctors COVID Consortium. The grassroots initiative has since grown into an impressive organization, received and tested more than 20,000 people to date.

"Stanford knew that factors ranging from pre-existing conditions to the high number of Black people working essential jobs to the history of Black people being treated unfairly by the medical community would undoubtedly affect their access to testing, not to mention their willingness to be tested for the virus," wrote Philadelphia magazine in a 2020 profile, adding that her efforts and those of the other health-care professionals she recruited to help were all volunteer.

""I didn't know how I was going to get paid," Dr. Stanford told Philadelphia, "but I said I'll figure it out on the back end, because I'm not going to have people not getting tested and not getting what they need when I have access to provide it to them."

Margot Gage Witvliet, PhD

Credit: margotwitvliet.com

Before Dr. Margot Gage Witvliet launched a private Facebook group for BIPOC women suffering from Long COVID—aka "post-COVID syndrome," the multi-organ symptoms that stick around long after the typical COVID recovery period of 1-2 weeks—this marginalized community had no safe space to discuss the unprecedented condition baffling both medical professionals and disrupting their lives, she tells Health

"Here I was, not research, but the actual subject," says Dr. Witvliet, a social epidemiologist and assistant professor at Lamar University in Texas who experienced an extended COVID recovery period long before there was even awareness around long-haul coronavirus. When the media and medical experts did start covering this phenomenon, the faces of Long COVID did not resemble those in the hardest hit communities, she explains.

Other online communities were not as inclusive of women who were not white, so Dr. Witvliet wanted to find refuge in specialized groups like her own, where she could speak publicly out about her own challenges. "A lot of us struggled with that in the beginning, and I don't think that's the case anymore because we did our job," she says.

Kim Gallon, PhD

Kim Gallon, PhD, an associate professor of history at Purdue University in Indiana, co-launched COVID Black, a Black health data organization that uses data to tell stories about the Black lived experience and advocate for health equity. The group's first project, a digital memorial titled the Homegoing, aims "to ease the pain and suffering of the families and friends who remain among the living," she tells Health, while paying respect to Black people in death—something that's often withheld in life.

Mizz June

Black trans and queer women have been largely excluded and disregarded from narratives on COVID in the Black community, despite and because of the violence and oppression they face within and outside of the community. That's left a dearth of data on the COVID casualty rate of this group. One individual, however, is determined to address the unique needs of this community.

After contracting COVID at the start of the pandemic and suffering racial and gender discrimination on the part of medical professionals, New York City-based Mizz June launched The H.A.F Project to raise awareness and support other Black trans and queer women. What started as a way to provide cabs to testing sites quickly pivoted to a more comprehensive and inclusive initiative—once Mizz June realized that her client base was more concerned with issues like anti-trans violence and poverty than with COVID.

"I'm one foot out of poverty myself, so maintaining my own health and well-being while sustaining the love and well-being that I have for my community has always been a challenge for me," she tells Health. "But those in the margins frowned upon, those are the ones I like to help. That could have been me."

Sandra Lindsay, RN

Credit: MARK LENNIHAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The first US coronavirus vaccine took place on a December morning in the New York City borough of Queens, an area that was hit hard by COVID when the pandemic began in New York last spring. The recipient was Sandra Lindsay a Black Jamaica-born critical-care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center who recognized an opportunity to lead "from the front," she told Health. "I volunteered to take the COVID vaccine to set an example, instill public confidence, and inspire my team to trust science," Lindsay said.

"That the recipient was a nurse made for a powerful tribute to the frontline health care workers who have witnessed the virus's deadly toll," the New York Times wrote on December 14. "'I've been hopeful today,' said Ms. Lindsay, whose vaccination drew applause. 'I feel like healing is coming. I hope this marks the beginning of the end in a very painful time in our history,'" the Times stated. Exactly 21 days later, Ms. Lindsay received her second dose of the vaccine.

Marcella Nunez-Smith, MD

Credit: Yale School of Medicine

Before the 2020 election, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith already had a list of medical achievements to her name: she was an associate professor of internal medicine, public health, and management at Yale University and a leader speaking out about health inequities in the age of COVID. Then, weeks after the election, Joe Biden named her the chair of his administration's COVID-19 Equity Task Force, giving her a national stage to push for more accessible testing, treatment, and vaccinations.

"'Make no mistake about it—beating this pandemic is hard work,'" Dr. Nunez-Smith said on February 10, per a February 12 New York Times profile. "'And beating this pandemic while making sure that everyone in every community has a fair chance to stay safe or to regain their health, well, that's the hard work and the right work.'"

Patrice Peck is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles and Brooklyn. She is the founder of Coronavirus for Black Folks, a monthly newsletter curating stories about the coronavirus pandemic as it directly relates to Black communities worldwide. 

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