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Stateside Podcast: A spike in Black infant mortality

Sicko Atze van Dijk via Flickr / Design by Rachel Ishikawa

Michigan has one of the highest rates of infant mortality in the U.S. This is despite the U.S. being the wealthiest country in the world and having the highest health care costs.

For Black families in Detroit, the numbers look particularly bad.

How the pandemic impacted infant mortality

Over the years, Detroit has made an effort in combating infant mortality through a series of programs, ranging from parent mentorships to medical support. And it seemed to be working. In 2019, rates dropped to a historic low for the city: 12.2 deaths per 1000 live births for Black infants.

But during the pandemic, the numbers started to climb. State data shows that in 2021, the rate jumped to 18.1 deaths per 1,000 live births for Black babies in the city.

“[The rate has] really risen during the pandemic – 2020, 2021 – not only in Detroit, but also, you know, across the country,” said Planet Detroit editor Nina Ignaczak who covered this issue. “What makes it so hard in Detroit is that, you know, these statistics really affect Black women more than other mothers.”

Ignaczak said that the pandemic has played a twofold role in this reality. First, people got sick with COVID, which can have a negative impact on pregnancies. And secondly, the pandemic put additional stress on the medical system and on support systems for families more broadly.

“When you have a population like Detroit's Black mothers, who are already facing disproportionate discrimination and lack of access to resources, adding COVID … on top of that just made everything harder – from accessing food to getting to doctor's appointments,” Ignaczak said.

The way forward

The issue of infant and maternal mortality, especially among Black women, is a symptom of large-scale racial disparities in maternal and infant health, said Dr. Jen Torres, manager of the Office of Women’s Health and Birth Equity at Michigan Public Health Institute. She said there are three key ways systemic racism affects these health outcomes.

“The first is how racism shapes the environments where people live. The second is how racism impacts the quality of care that people receive. And the third is the way that experiencing racism across the life course in all of its forms impacts the body and one's health,” Torres explained.

That means tackling this public health issue will require a comprehensive approach. Torres is part of a state initiative called Achieving Birth Equity Through Systems Transformation (ABEST) that’s “building capacity of systems leaders to understand and identify how racism functions as a root cause of inequities in their communities, and then building capacity to lead systems change efforts.”

Folks are pushing for change on a policy level as well. Earlier this year, a bill package – aptly named “Momnibus” – was introduced to the state Senate. The bills tackle issues like expanding care coverage and creating better data systems to track equity.

Torres said she’s optimistic about the future. The pandemic further exposed the cracks of the healthcare system, and there are a lot of lessons we can learn from it.

“I hope that [the pandemic] helps to highlight the importance of local public health, not just for maternal and infant health, but for public health in general.”

To hear a more detailed conversation on how we got here, and what solutions there are, listen to the Stateside Podcast.

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Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.