By Darlene McDonald
This week, the number of Americans who have died from Covid-19 reached a bleak milestone. The number of people who have died from Covid-19 surpassed the number of Americans killed during the twenty-year Vietnam War. That is a heartbreaking reality of the devastation brought on by a global pandemic. However, hidden within those numbers is yet another tragedy that has been exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, and that is the racial inequities in our healthcare system.
The state of Louisiana was the first to release Covid-19 data by race. What it showed was that while Blacks make up 33 percent of the population, they accounted for 70 percent of the deaths. The same was true further north in Michigan. In that state, Blacks make up 15 percent of the population but represent 35 percent of people diagnosed with Covid-19 and 40 percent of deaths from the virus. Recently, researchers surveyed eight Georgia hospitals and in a sample of 305 Covid-19 patients, 247 were Black. State by state, the story is the same. Blacks make up a disproportionate number of those who are infected and those who are dying from the virus.
In New York, the epicenter of the virus in the U.S, Black people are twice as likely to die as white people. “A CDC study suggested that about 90 percent of the most serious Covid-19 cases involve underlying health conditions — hypertension and cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, chronic lung disease — that are more common and more deadly in black Americans.” Research has found that these health disparities are not erased by an increase in income or education.
Covid-19 has shined a light on many of these health disparities. It has also highlighted, quite plainly, racial inequality contributes to uneven access to services, and poorer health outcomes in communities of color.
Our daily news is filled with heart-wrenching stories of men and women of color being turned away at hospitals after requesting testing for the coronavirus. On March 6, President Trump declared, “Anybody that wants a test can get a test. That’s what the bottom line is.” Unfortunately, that statement would prove to be untrue. On April 27th, Rana Zoe Mungin, a 30-year-old middle school social studies teacher from Brooklyn died of Covid-19 after being turned away twice for testing. On April 6th Gary Fowler died in a recliner in his home, hours after his father had died from the virus. The younger Fowler had gone to the emergency room in Detroit three times for tests and was turned away each time. His wife also contracted the virus and spent 2 days on a ventilator after being turned away for testing and treatment.
These stories are also being told in the Indigenous population. Mother and son Joseph and Ruby Morton from the Navajo Nation died of the virus within days of each other after likely contracting it at a church rally. The Navajo Nation, with tribal lands in three states — northern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico and southern Utah, has been hit hard by the outbreak. As of April 23, 1,360 infections and 52 deaths had been reported among the Navajo Reservation.
In March, Congressional and Senate leaders sent a letter to Health and Human Service Secretary, Alex Azar for the agency to reveal racial data on testing and treatment for the virus. The lawmakers wrote, “Although Covid-19 does not discriminate along racial or ethnic lines, existing racial disparities and inequities in health outcomes and health care access may mean that the nation’s response to preventing and mitigating its harms will not be felt equally in every community.” States must gather a demographics breakdown of the COVID-19 impacted each community. That data is vital to adequately respond to this pandemic. It will be insufficient if states boast of equality in the distribution of resources because all communities have not been equally impacted.
In order for us to address the inequity in our healthcare system, and the response and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, we must contend with the historical legacy of discrimination, marginalization, and underinvestment that disadvantages specific groups of people, especially groups that are defined by race and ethnicity. Equity requires providing support tailored to the specific needs of these communities.
Darlene McDonald is a Better Utah board member.