COVID-19 Crisis Highlights Ways to Combat Health Disparities for People of Color

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Brandi Alexander

By Brandi Alexander, Compassion & Choices

The coronavirus pandemic is taking a disproportionate toll on people of color, joining the many healthcare disparities that people and communities of color as a whole, have historically faced. To commemorate April as National Minority Health Month, now is the time to seek viable solutions to address those disparities that are realistically within our collective grasps.

As a member of the African American community, I am personally and communally affected by the insidious COVID-19. Every day I continue to see and hear how this deadly virus is impacting my community. The numbers reported are real. I know because my aunt is recovering from the virus.

The small silver lining so far in this public health crisis is that it highlights ways to help combat these healthcare disparities right now. The methods detailed below can be utilized immediately, in conjunction with the necessary long-term systemic changes that will require major policy reforms, in both our economic and healthcare system, to begin the fight to eradicate these disparities.

Unequal access to economic opportunities and healthcare facilities are just some of the huge systemic hurdles that policymakers must address to close the healthcare disparities chasm between people of color and white Americans.

Meanwhile, the question is what can people of color do in the near term to minimize our chances of dying from this life-threatening illness and another deadly disease in the future?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that groups at higher risk for severe illness from the coronavirus include people of all ages with underlying medical conditions, particularly if not well controlled, including, but not limited to:

·      People with chronic lung disease

·      People who have serious heart conditions

·      People who are immunocompromised by cancer treatment, smoking, bone marrow or organ transplantation, immune deficiencies, poorly controlled HIV or AIDS, and prolonged use of corticosteroids and other immune weakening medications

·      People with severe obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 40 or higher)

·      People with diabetes

Some of these healthcare conditions are genetic or caused by lack of healthcare access, but some we can avoid or minimize by 1) not smoking to minimize the chances of lung disease; 2) eating healthier, less sugary foods less likely to cause diabetes, heart disease and obesity; and 3) avoiding unsafe sex that could lead to HIV or AIDS.

Not coincidentally, Kaiser Health News reports: “Blacks and Alaska Natives have higher rates of…diabetes compared to Whites … nonelderly adult Alaska Natives are nearly twice as likely as Whites are to report having had a heart attack or heart disease. Black, Hispanic, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians Other Pacific Islanders nonelderly adults and Black and Hispanic children also are more likely to be obese compared to Whites. Compared to Whites, Blacks have an over eight times higher HIV diagnosis rate and a nearly ten times higher AIDS diagnosis rate, and the HIV and AIDS diagnosis rates for Hispanics are more than three times the rates for Whites.”

If you’re a person of color of any age, but especially if you suffer from a life-threatening disease, you can use the coronavirus and National Minority Health Month as motivation to discuss your end-of-life care wishes with your family members. Start having these family conversations, complete an advance care directive detailing your wishes for end-of-life care if you cannot speak for yourself and appoint a healthcare proxy to ensure your healthcare providers know what you want and don’t want. 

I’m well aware that these conversations are difficult because my dad died without discussing his end-of-life care wishes with our family. When he could not speak for himself, we had no idea about his preferences and healthcare priorities. As a result, this lack of information caused needless suffering for him, and family infighting, guilt and heartbreak, because we never talked about it.

Thankfully, there are online tools and resources available to help guide these conversations and to complete an advance care directive documenting the details of your preferred end-of-life care treatments.

For example, CompassionAndChoices.org, provides FREE end-of-life care fact sheets and planning tools to help you navigate your care options, including a COVID-19 specific planning guide.  Take it from someone who knows first-hand experience, taking action now will reduce the stress of caregiving for your loved ones and the chances that you or they will needlessly suffer in death, whether it is in the near or distant future.  

Brandi Alexander is the National Director of Constituency for Compassion & Choices, the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit organization dedicated to improving and expanding healthcare options for the end of life.

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