COVID-19: Another SOS call from communities of color

COVID-19: Another SOS call from communities of color
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The COVID-19 global pandemic is cause for alarm for everyone regardless of race, religion, place of residency or economic standing. The virus is wreaking havoc worldwide leaving no nation untouched. As deaths from the novel coronavirus continue to soar, there is mounting evidence that communities of color are suffering the greatest burden of disease and death. In Chicago approximately 72 percent of the city’s deaths due to COVID-19 involved African Americans, a group that makes up 30 percent of the city’s total population. African Americans are six times more likely to die from the novel coronavirus when compared with their white counterparts in Chicago.

Other cities with proportionately large numbers of minority populations report similar findings. Data showing an association between zip codes and an excess burden of comorbidity, disease and death provide further evidence that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by this deadly virus.

The Kaiser Family Foundation identified the lack of health care access, higher rates of chronic and underlying conditions, and a variety of social and economic issues as contributing factors to the excess burden of disease and deaths attributed to COVID-19. These determinants of health are all too familiar to communities of color because these same factors have adversely shaped the health profile and longevity of these communities for decades.  

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Now during the COVID-19 pandemic, these determinants are further superimposed by emerging barriers to receiving testing for COVID-19. Some physicians working with African American populations have expressed concern that members of the African American community do not have equitable access to testing, a concern further exacerbated by the lack of specific data on race and ethnicity for those that have been tested. 

As a nurse with over four decades working with and on behalf of minority communities, these data and concerns are not surprising to me. Unfortunately, and in some instances, the current influenza outbreak only added more fuel to the fire.

The current crisis serves as another reminder that America needs to solve its health care crisis by moving quickly to address the root causes or social factors (e.g., inadequate housing, unemployment, lack of insurance coverage, environmental pollutants, economic hardship) that perpetuate adverse health outcomes. The issue of equitable access to health care and poor health outcomes, especially for our most vulnerable populations, existed before COVID-19 and will continue to extend way beyond the current COVID-19 crisis. 

I am heartened by the heightened awareness surrounding disparities in health outcomes. Many of these health disparities have plagued communities of color for years. I am encouraged to see the manner in which some of our most influential leaders, including governors and mayors, are visibly tackling issues of disparities and health care access during this coronavirus pandemic. I see new advocates fighting for better access to health care for those most in need. However, we need more.

It is my hope that this kind of commitment and action will intensify long after the coronavirus pandemic is eradicated. Now that we have another glimpse of the longstanding disparities, disease and death in communities of color, we need to stay the course placing supportive policies and resources in places where statistics have taken us during this pandemic. In keeping with the words of Wolfgang von Goethe “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”

Janice Phillips, R.N., Ph.D., is an associate professor at Rush University College of Nursing, the director of nursing research and health equity at the Rush University Medical Center.