Health equity, race, and COVID-19: Q&A with GRAAHI board member and physician Herman Sullivan

Tell me about your work with The Grand Rapids African American Health Institute (GRAAHI).

I have been a board member for the past 12 years. In fact, according to the governance rules, I have outstayed my appointment by two terms. I have also been President of the Board for two terms after the late Honorable Judge Ben Logan became ill several years ago and could not continue to fulfill the responsibilities. I have been present for three executive directors, the latest being Micah Foster.

How has ?OVID-19 affected Black Americans in West Michigan?

I think that there are three groups to consider...

One, those individuals who have been infected and have survived. Two, those who have been infected and have died. And those who remain asymptomatic and infected, mildly symptomatic and infected, and asymptomatic and infected...

The infectivity rates are higher because of living circumstances and social gatherings. There is high density in family units that would make the immediate social distancing within a household difficult. The jobs that are undertaken by members of certain communities cannot be transferred digitally. They require in-person presence and that increases exposure potential. Certain means of transportation will increase the exposure potential.

What are some of GRAAHI’s current initiatives?

One of the most important on-going projects for GRAAHI is the Health Equity Index (HEI). It discusses and evaluates health outcomes, behaviors, and social determinants of health.
  • Real Women Real Change (10-week course focused on improving health and wellness among women Senior Care Outreach Program in partnership with local community centers and ALFs to provide education, health information update, BP checks.)
  • Strong Fathers provides resources on how to father and parent.
  • Widespread community partnerships and presentations
  • Diabetes Empowerment Network [“program focused on educating men in the Kent County area about the risk factors for diabetes and other health issues that disproportionately affect black men.”]
How does GRAAHI advocate for Black Americans at the local level? And at the regional and national level?

Our Executive Directors have consistently met with groups and individuals in the community to discuss and educate our colleagues on health care disparities. We have partnered with all of the health systems in Grand Rapids to review the specifics of the HEI, and to propose solutions. The community health care centers serve as a major conduit for bringing better health care to communities at risk. There needs to be a more fulsome discussion locally and nationally regarding [health] insurance coverage for all citizens.

The persisting connection between this [health insurance] coverage and employment prolongs and expands these disparities. There were insightful discussions in and around the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. And as we began to see the needle move, there was a change in leadership and a move backward.

How can individuals advocate for people of color disproportionately impacted by COVID-19?

Educate yourself on the financial underpinnings of our healthcare system and understand that this is a multi-dimensional problem whose solution requires courage to change and sacrifice, which many have not been willing to undertake. The COVID pandemic has amplified the disparities that have existed for generations. It is a variation on well-rehearsed scenarios of diminished access to adequate health care that, in turn, condemns melanized Americans to poorer healthcare outcomes. It is intentional and purposeful, not hidden or accidental.

Therefore, the solution must be intentional, requiring sacrifice on the part of those who have benefitted from disparities. Long-term success will occur only when society is fundamentally changed; that is to say, when we defeat the addiction of American-styled racism.


Dr. Sullivan is the Executive Medical Director of Hauenstein Neurosciences as well as the Medical Director of the Multiple Sclerosis program at Mercy Health. His clinical interests include adult neurology as well as multiple sclerosis. When asked about his philosophy of care, Dr. Sullivan said,

"Primum non nocere, which is Latin for 'First, do no harm.'"

In his spare time, Dr. Sullivan enjoys spending time with his family and two sons, as well as listening to and playing the piano.