If the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has taught us one thing already, it is that we are not all the same. It is not genetics, religion, or political affiliation that separates us, but rather the social and physical context in which we live. Despite the pandemic’s creation of a sense of shared national experience, it has placed a harsh light on the nation casting the grim shadow of the endemic health inequities affecting marginalized communities, especially those of color.
Communities of color disproportionately infected and killed by the coronavirus
From the first recorded case to April 28, 2020, there were over 980,000 coronavirus cases and 55,000 deaths in the U.S. Given the current projections, coronavirus is progressively becoming the leading cause of death in the U.S. Available data and reports highlight a shameful reality, that communities of color are disproportionately infected and killed by the coronavirus.
Racial health inequities
As the nation awaits the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) provision of a comprehensive national breakdown of coronavirus effects by race, potentially in early May, the expected trend will reflect that of historic racial health inequities due in large part to various forms of racism, most notably structural racism.
Social and environmental conditions
Although our president may be surprised that the coronavirus disproportionately harms communities of color, surprise is not a luxury these communities can afford. As the coronavirus claims more lives day-by-day, it is also further exacerbating harmful social and environmental conditions associated with adverse health outcomes (social risk factors), such as food insecurity, job insecurity, housing instability, and social isolation.
Coronavirus increases social risk factors for communities of color
The coronavirus is exacerbating social risk factors in communities due to its extreme national disruptiveness, as demonstrated by the spike in unemployment claims. Communities of color are already disproportionately harmed by these social risk factors. An increase in social risk factors is concerning because it not only increases further susceptibility to coronavirus-related morbidity and mortality but also increases the risk of diabetes, cancer, heart attack, stroke, and more. This means the coronavirus pandemic will likely increase the magnitude of pre-existing health disparities within the nation unless equity-informed measures are taken promptly.
CMS data on communities of color, needed for targeted actions to reduce infection and mortality
The push for the expeditious release of CMS data pertaining to coronavirus cases and mortality is to inform and target efforts to the populations in critical need of resources and assistance to protect and save lives. Armed with the necessary data, the health disparities we see can be avoided. It is essential, as a nation, to take a hard look at ourselves and recognize two things:
- Policymakers must take explicit actions to protect the underserved populations during this crisis, including through increasing the federal medical assistance percentage (FMAP), supporting Medicaid Expansion, and expanding Special Enrollment Periods (SEP), housing protections, protections from collection, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
- That we take it upon ourselves to go beyond this crisis and ensure vulnerable populations genuinely have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – not just theoretically.
We must not treat the disparities that this pandemic has exposed as an isolated phenomenon. Measures must be taken to address the underlying inequities in our nation, such as social and racial justice for oppressed communities and increased investment in social services for all populations.
After this pandemic concludes, we should not strive to return to “business as usual,” but rather to transform our systems by committing and investing in health equity. This is a defining moment in our nation. When we look back, years from now, will we be proud of our bravery to change the status quo or ashamed of our cowardice in upholding it?