As the COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s increasing evidence that populations already vulnerable due to pre-existing health and social inequities have been hit the hardest, particularly racial and ethnic minority groups. “Inequities in the social determinants of health, such as poverty and healthcare access, affecting these groups are interrelated and influence a wide range of health and quality-of-life outcomes and risks,” the CDC states.

The result, according to the CDC, is that areas where these inequities exist have seen not only more COVID-19 cases but more hospitalizations and deaths. To address this issue, the organization urges community- and faith-based groups, employers, healthcare providers, policy makers—essentially, all of us—to step up and work together to ensure we all have the resources necessary to combat the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, an effort by the American Medical Association (AMA) encourages organizations that are doing just that to share their initiatives. Some of the endeavors profiled on the AMA’s website include how Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., is creating COVID-19 care sites and expanding testing capabilities via mobile solutions. The Black Arizona COVID-19 Task Force is rolling out several phases of a plan that provides testing and mental health services, supports small businesses, and addresses food insecurity.

These are just a couple examples, but they show what can and should be happening everywhere, as we continue to see COVID-19 exacerbated by societal stressors. But what role can design play? It was one topic explored in a mini charrette exercise we conducted in September, an effort to allow our Healthcare Design Editorial Advisory Board the opportunity to dig into some of the most pressing issues that have emerged during this crisis in a day-long virtual event (watch for coverage in the November issue).

Similar to the initiatives above, the small group assigned to exploring the topic of health inequity thought deeply on the role of community and social determinants of health. They discussed the complexity of the issue that stems well beyond care delivery, specifically, to identify a built environment solution that considers health more comprehensively. Characteristics of what that might look like include ease of access, outdoor spaces, the reuse of existing community buildings, engagement of users, technology and telehealth infrastructure, flexibility and adaptability, and safe and secure surroundings.

They also recognized that a lot of what’s necessary is beyond the power of what designers can do—with an important distinction: “We can contribute,” said group member Karl Sonnenberg of ZGF.

It’s important for us all to ponder the role of the design and building community in what is, hopefully, just the beginning of a systemic course correction