Across the country, in places like Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Louisiana, African Americans are disproportionately contracting and dying from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Here in Massachusetts, communities with large black and Latino populations are at risk. We dig into the numbers locally and across the country – and what they mean for minority communities.
We spoke with Joseph Betancourt, vice president and chief equity and inclusion officer at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Michael Curry, former president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, and a member of the national NAACP Board of Directors.
On why minority communities are being hit disproportionately by the coronavirus
Betancourt: You think about things like areas with high population density. You think about areas and individuals who can't do the types of things that we know from a scientific basis are important to limit spread, like social distancing. So if you think about individuals who live in housing with multiple family members, individuals who didn't have the luxury of working from home and had to take public transportation to work, individuals who are essential workers in places like ... supermarkets and other areas where they're exposed to a lot of people. What we know is those – what we call social determinants, socioeconomic status, the environment, housing, all those factors, absolutely contribute to disparities that we see already and absolutely are the perfect substrate for the spread of a respiratory infectious disease, and minorities are disproportionally represented among those individuals who live in those conditions.
On how the pandemic is exacerbating existing health disparities
Curry: The reality is, I don't trust our system to determine who dies and who lives, because of implicit bias. And I think what I've heard in conversation with the attorney general's office just this week, with Maura Healey and Secretary [Marylou] Sudders in [the state Office of] Health and Human Services, experts in this field, Dr. Thea James over at [Boston Medical Center] and others say, "Hey, we need to make sure there's diverse faces, diverse people at the table, LGBTQ people of color, people with disabilities to say, hey, that policy is not the right policy. ... A surge will impact our communities in a different way, and we need you to put the resources in the right place."
I have a concern ... are we being tested like other communities? Do we have access to the information that will save our lives and maybe deal with the symptoms, even though we don't have a vaccine, but maybe will deal with our fever and help us stay at home? Do we know what contact tracing is, and are we getting the resources to keep our families safe if we do get sick? I'm not sure. Actually, I can say pretty convincingly we're not getting that. Not in Michigan, in Detroit, in Chicago, in L.A., and in New York, and the data is starting to bear that out – that there [are] inequities about how you access life-saving measures. And we should not be surprised if we looked at our history in this country.
On why we need more racial data behind coronavirus cases
Curry: We need the data so that we can course-correct, so we can figure out if there's places that need a testing site, a drive-up site that are not getting [it.] Too many black families are being told when they call in, [saying], "I'm sick," ... and [the providers] say, "Just stay home, stay sick. We'll presume you have COVID-19. You don't need a test," but they're not getting the advice about how to isolate at home and do those things. ... We can focus all on emergency rooms and hospitals, but that would be naive. And if we want to compare this to a war, that's not a good strategy. The reality is, while we protect the ... hospitals and provide them with dollars and get them the PPE [like gowns and masks] and prepare for surge, that surge is a spill over throughout our communities.
On the shared experience of black and brown communities in this pandemic
Betancourt: I think there's a lot of shared experience between, you know, black and brown people, between African Americans and Latinos here in the U.S. But there are certain certainly some differences, and I think the couple of the big ones are the language barrier plays a role here as we try to get people information. Trust is something that's similar, clearly. I think issues around immigration status certainly play a role. I mean, we have a lot of people who are not going to be getting relief checks, but who are paying taxes and who are working in restaurants and still out there working. If they're not feeling well, from a financial standpoint, if they don't go to work, they don't get any money. So you're putting people in a real predicament here. We care deeply about these things as a health care system, and we want to focus on these social determinants, but we can't do this in the presence of an eroding social safety net. We need to have, you know, good, thoughtful policy.
There's a lot of our shared experience here that together allows us to advocate for these social conditions and these social determinants, that, by the way, weren't created by chance and in many, many instances were created quite deliberately. And I think we need to be careful watchdogs in the future of making sure these policies don't further exacerbate disparities, but also go back and try to fix the things that created these disparities in the first place."
This article was originally published on April 07, 2020.
This segment aired on April 7, 2020.