On March 20, 2020, after months of hearing news that a global pandemic was slowly but surely creeping towards us, lockdown officially began. As we struggled to navigate life during this time, we were confronted with the ugly truth about social and racial inequality as it relates to healthcare and the dire consequences this had for our most vulnerable populations.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US is the disproportionate harm that it has caused to historically marginalized groups. Our Black, Hispanic and Asian communities have substantially higher rates of infection, hospitalization and death compared with white populations. With regards to the pandemic, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities have suffered a devastating impact to their physical and mental health, financial state and overall livelihood. It’s a well-known fact that inequalities in health care existed long before “COVID-19” entered the American vernacular, but no event in modern history has shed such a significant light on the diversity health challenges these populations face.
So as we celebrate World Health Day, having only just begun to reopen our country and armed with the potential security of a vaccine to combat COVID-19, let us take the opportunity to acknowledge our nation and our world is still one of inequality for so many. Those born into lower income brackets, populations and communities of color, transgender populations and elderly persons still face disproportionate difficulties in obtaining access and competent health care, education, employment opportunities and financial security. To truly effect change we must first and foremost recognize that these challenges are not only unjust but also preventable, and the first step toward prevention and change is awareness, the second being action. Below are the four ways in which we can begin to address the disparities in our healthcare systems and ways in which we can begin to close these gaps.
Generating Awareness and Changing Our Health Care Inequalities:
- Availability and Quality: Members of racial and ethnic minorities are frequently misrepresented and even excluded from receiving quality health services. Not only must healthcare be made available, services offered must meet cultural and linguistic standards to ensure that no one in need is left behind. Inequities in healthcare services available often result in distrust of system overall and deter our most marginalized populations from seeking the treatment they need and deserve.
- Set up Adequate Systems for Distribution of Care: In order to assure that even our most vulnerable communities receive appropriate care, it is essential to set up culturally appropriate and responsive teams that can facilitate care through the most effective channels and mediums. Furthermore, care practices and tools must be set up to adhere to our current COVID-19 state by using approved and free platforms to communicate with patients beyond traditional phone calls and office visits. In addition, systems should also be established with robust equity and quality measurements that prioritize groups that have persistently been left out from receiving health information and care.
- Improve Occupation and Work Conditions: We often fail to realize that communities of color and minorities are unequally represented in essential work settings. Members from our most vulnerable sectors makes up a disproportionate number of essential workers in places such as: healthcare facilities, farms, factories, food production and processing, grocery stores and public transportation. As a result, they are subject to far more risky work conditions with regards to exposure to COVID-19. These jobs are often underpaid, cannot be remote, do not offer paid sick leave and involve being in close contact with others. Therefore, in order to protect our essential workers and BIPOC communities, we must ensure that they receive fair treatment, leave, wages and working conditions.
- Income and Wealth: People from some racial and ethnic minority groups have historically lower incomes, experience barriers to wealth accumulation and carry greater debt. Such challenges may make managing expenses, paying medical bills and accessing affordable quality housing, nutritious food and achieving an overall healthier life far more unattainable. It is important to take into consideration and improve these social determinants of health in order to effect lasting progress.