Opinion

COVID-19 Laid Bare America’s Need to Confront Its Racial Health Disparities

By Bill Frist & Rhonda Medows
July 24, 2020 at 5:00 am ET

Every one of us is feeling the stress of these uncertain times. For Black Americans, the pain of the past several months has been especially devastating. Two viruses have reared their ugly head: COVID-19 and racism — both of which are killing people of color at disproportionate rates. 

Although we may come to this conversation from different backgrounds — as physicians and leaders in the health care community — we both firmly believe that racism is detrimental to health in all its forms and that addressing the systemic devaluing of black lives is a moral imperative. 

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

While COVID-19 itself may not discriminate, Black Americans and other minorities have had to bear the greatest brunt of this pandemic due to generations of racial health disparities and inequities — related to poverty, education, housing, access to transportation, healthy food and health care.

Black Americans were already disproportionately suffering from a higher rate of underlying conditions and chronic illnesses — including diabetes, heart disease, and obesity — all conditions which increase susceptibility to the ravages of COVID-19.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a number of other government bodies have yet to adequately break down and publicly reveal COVID-19 by race or ethnicity, the results from the data we do have paints an extremely disturbing portrait.

  • Black people make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but 24 percent of U.S. COVID-19 deaths where public health authorities have reported race. 
  • A Yale study found that Black Americans are 3.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white Americans. Latinx people are almost twice as likely to die of the disease, compared with white people.
  • Counties predominantly home to Black Americans account for over half of coronavirus cases in the United States and nearly 60 percent of deaths, according to a study by the Foundation for Aids Research.
  • In Chicago, where Black Americans comprise a third of the city’s population, they account for half of those who have tested positive for the coronavirus, and almost three-quarters of COVID-19 deaths.
  • In Louisiana, Black Americans account for 70 percent of all deaths in the state, but only 32 percent of the population. 
  • In New Mexico, Native Americans are dying from COVID at rates 19 times that of all other populations combined.

It’s also important to point out that these disparities are compounded by an ongoing cultural bias — both intentional and not, regardless of a patient’s social, economic, and educational statuses.

As a health care community, society and nation, we must do better. 

Inclusive solutions are needed right away and across the board going forward to address long-standing barriers and racial inequities in our current health care system.

COVID-19 Must Lead to Action on Health Disparities

No longer can hard truths be ignored — such as the fact that systemic racism is a public health emergency that has been with us for decades. 

Now more than ever, as America prepares to reopen our economy, we need our public officials to set aside partisan differences and brace themselves to take significant, meaningful action to counter health inequities that have lingered for generations. 

To advance this effort, we call on policymakers at the state and federal level, health care providers, health systems, and health insurers to work together to break the chain of health disparities — amplified by COVID — by committing to the following:

  1. Outreach with communities of color: Provide COVID prevention outreach and care resources for communities of color now before the next wave of illness. 
  2. Increase COVID tests in local communities now. We are pleased to see numerous nonprofits, cities and states stepping up to offer free COVID-19 testing at many protest locations. More local testing should continue in the upcoming weeks.
  3. Ensure there are enough community-built contact tracing programs that better meet the needs of people of color. 
  4. Confirm improved local health care access, including Telehealth. 
  5. Provide antiviral drugs (once proven effective) equitably to all patients in need. 
  6. Commit to prioritizing future vaccine use for those at greater risk of higher mortality.

Although overcoming long-standing racial health disparities will take time, effort and commitment, the key is to “take the first step” as it will help collectively put us on the path towards racial justice and healing. 

As we look back on this period in which we stared down the worst global pandemic in a century, the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the most extensive racial unrest in 50 years — it is our hope that we can also say it brought about a necessary cultural change to achieve a healthier, more equitable America.

 

Bill Frist, M.D., is a board member of United States of Care, the former U.S Senate Majority Leader, and Chairman and Founder of Nashville Health. Rhonda Medows, M.D., is a board member of United States of Care, CEO of Ayin Health Solutions, and president, Population Health Management at St Joseph Health.

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