By TC. VIRGINIA FIELDS and DOUG WIRTH, New York Daily News
While the coronavirus pandemic is having a profound and disruptive effect on everyone’s lives, some communities are bearing the brunt of the burden. Data coming in from around the nation makes it clear that communities of color are being hit particularly hard. In Louisiana and Chicago, African Americans accounted for about 70% of COVID-19 deaths, even though they are a minority in both areas. Here in New York City, Black people have accounted for 28% of COVID-19 deaths, despite being only 22% of the population; Hispanic New Yorkers make up 34% of COVID-19 deaths, although they represent only 29% of the population.
While this data is shocking, it is not surprising that the coronavirus is impacting people of color, who are placed at greater risk for contracting and dying from the virus. It is well documented that communities of color are more likely to suffer from conditions like asthma, obesity, heart disease, diabetes and a myriad of other health issues. Such health disparities have existed for years and are now in plain view for the world to see.
These disparities exist because communities of color experience serious structural barriers to accessing quality, affordable health care, including discrimination and higher rates of poverty. This reality contributes to distrust in the system, which leads to many to avoid seeking health care altogether.
People of color are also less likely to have health insurance. Additionally, people of color are more likely to work in low-wage industries like restaurants and hotels, which are taking serious hits due to COVID-19, leaving them unemployed or unable to afford time off. Many people of color are also on the frontlines of the COVID-19 fight, serving in essential roles at grocery stores, in hospitals and in delivery trucks — meaning they are more exposed to the virus without support.
To immediately mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in the hardest-hit communities, testing should be prioritized in neighborhoods with high populations of people of color. We also need greater transparency around the racial disparities in medical staff treating COVID-19 patients, and whether critical supplies and equipment are available to hospitals primarily serving communities of color.
Longer-term, this crisis reaffirms the urgent need to create a more equitable health care system. We must start by making quality, affordable health care more accessible to all Americans. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, the uninsured rate for black Americans fell from 19.9% in 2010 to a low of 10.7% in 2016. This was driven largely by states that expanded Medicaid. If politicians are serious about addressing these inequalities, they need to stop undermining programs that work.
Furthermore, we need to address social determinants of health that we know impact a person’s ability to get and stay well, including employment, food security and housing. We won’t be able to truly overhaul the health-care system in this country without addressing the needs of the whole person, like livable wage jobs, healthful food options and quality, affordable housing.
History repeats itself, and this isn’t the first epidemic that has impacted people of color at disproportionate rates. Black people are eight times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV and nine times more likely to die of AIDS than the general population. A quarter of new HIV infections in the U.S. occur among Hispanic people, although they represent 17% of the population.
It’s unacceptable for some Americans to be more likely to get sick and die from the coronavirus than others because they can’t get the care they need — care that should be readily available to everyone. We can’t lose sight of this when the immediate crisis subsides; we need to do all we can to break down systemic barriers and fight for health care access, social justice, and equity for communities of color.
Fields is the former Manhattan borough president and current President and CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on Health. Wirth is the president and CEO of Amida Care, a New York Medicaid Special Needs Health Plan.
This article first appeared in the New York Daily News.