As COVID-19 Shines a Light on Health Disparities, the Time to Act Is Now

Perhaps we will look back at this pandemic and see it as a turning point when the broader disparities in our society were laid bare — and we began to repair them.

Sfam_photo/ Shutterstock
Sfam_photo/ Shutterstock

Of all the devastating effects of coronavirus, the one I can’t stop thinking about is how the virus is disproportionately impacting African Americans with higher rates of infection and death. Tragically, this dynamic echoes a shameful truth in America that your odds of living a long and healthy life are directly related to the color of your skin.

Even as cases mount, the data on racial disparities is undeniable and overwhelming.  While African Americans account for just 13 percent of the population, roughly one-third of those hospitalized with Covid-19 are African American. A staggering 72 percent of coronavirus fatalities in Chicago are African American.  New York has not released infection or fatality breakdowns by race, but officials say this information will become available soon.  This information is essential to understand the full scope of the crisis.

We don’t know enough about Covid-19 yet to understand all the medical reasons for these horrific numbers, but we understand the causes of racial disparities — along with broader social dynamics — well enough to make some educated guesses.  African Americans have a lower life expectancy than other Americans, and suffer disproportionately from many of the underlying conditions that dramatically increase one’s odds of dying from the virus. On top of these preexisting conditions, African Americans are more likely to live in denser areas where social distancing is more challenging, and to hold jobs that we consider essential during the crisis — postal workers, public transit and delivery, among others.

These statistics, while shocking, come into even sharper focus when they become a name and a face. That’s why the case of Jason Hargrove, an African American bus driver, was especially poignant. Jason died shortly after complaining on social media about repeated exposure to sick passengers, and his story has become a rallying cry to secure proper equipment for transit officers around the country.  Countless stories like Jason’s will never be told, and all of us have a moral responsibility to honor their lives and their sacrifice.    

One of the reasons there is such clear pattern recognition in what we are seeing during coronavirus is that the same disparities have long existed in other areas.  Breast and prostate cancer are two prominent examples.  African American women are more than 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than white women.  When I first heard that statistic from Paula Schneider, CEO of Susan G. Komen, I was shocked into action.  I became active with Komen and eventually joined the organization’s board.

In response to the pandemic, the work of organizations like Komen is more important than ever, especially when you consider that breast cancer patients are among the most vulnerable to the virus and must navigate a healthcare system that is overrun in many states. Many breast cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation, can weaken the immune system, and some hospitals are postponing breast cancer surgery. Yet even as the world’s eyes are focused on coronavirus, our broader work must go on.  Let’s reject the notion that we must choose between battling the pandemic and fighting health disparities.

Because the coronavirus pandemic impacts us all, we are living through a moment of extraordinary awareness and concern.  We need to harness this to mitigate suffering and loss of life during the pandemic, and to carry this spirit forward even as the virus eventually subsides. There are encouraging signs that this is taking place, even alongside deeply troubling reports of increased acts of hate against Chinese people and those of Asian descent.

I am optimistic.  Perhaps we will even look back at the unimaginable pain of the pandemic and see it as a turning point when the broader disparities in our society were laid bare — and we began to repair them.

In doing so, we will honor the words of the great Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, who said that “the measure of a country’s greatness is its ability to retain compassion in times of crisis.”

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