An open letter to the New York Times about their article, “Where Chronic Health Conditions and Coronavirus Could Collide“…
I had to abbreviate the below letter to the New York Times, but if I didn’t have to abide by a word count, this is what I would have submitted…
I want to follow up on your recent article on May 18th, “Where Chronic Health Conditions and Coronavirus Could Collide.” The authors touched on the topic of health disparity that I think deserves more attention; but they didn’t go far enough. Media needs to be more aggressive in stating that living in poverty, often rooted in racism, is the reason that certain communities suffer higher rates of health comorbidities. Inadequate housing, food insecurity, and many medical conditions that could be coined as “pathologies of inequality” (high rates of maternal death and low birth weights, high rates of asthma, obesity, and diabetes), as well as less access to quality medical care are conditions of poverty. These communities went into the coronavirus pandemic underserved and under-resourced. I believe that’s the root of the problem we need to address.
In Philadelphia, a baby born in the mostly black section of north Philadelphia will be expected to live 20 years less than a baby born in the mostly white and affluent Liberty Bell area. That’s pre-coronavirus. In America, your gender, race, zip code, and income are all factors in how healthy you can be, how long you’ll live, and now, how well you can fight off a novel virus.
I believe this virus exposed a long-standing, ugly truth: we decided that these communities were expendable long before Covid-19.
- It’s evident in our maternal mortality rate. According to a report by the CDC, among ten similarly wealthy countries, the U.S. ranks last with the highest amount of maternal deaths in 2018, and the maternal death rate for black women was more than double that of white women (37.1 deaths per 100,000 live births compared to 14.7).
- It’s evident in the lack of access to quality health care in low-income and minority neighborhoods that unsuccessfully treat chronic illnesses. Researchers from Boston University found that only 8% of white adults have multiple risk factors compared to 11% of black adults and 18% of Native American adults.
- It’s evident in decades of racist housing policies, toxic dumping, and anti-busing measures that prevent people of color from owning homes and living in areas that are not polluted, overcrowded, crime-ridden and depleted of health resources. Living in these unsafe neighborhoods cause chronic stress that ultimately leads to chronic illnesses—a fatal combination for those exposed to Coronavirus.
The unfair policies we’ve put into place, the systemic racism we’ve allowed to prevail, and our collective indifference to the disenfranchisement of minority and low-income communities ensured that many of our fellow citizens will not survive Covid-19, driving up the US death rate beyond that of any other nation.
Personal (ir)responsibility is not the cause of the problem, though it’s much easier than admitting that systemic inequality exists and that our collective inaction and apathy are part of the problem. Every poor person knows these facts to be true. This knowledge adds to people’s frustration (and chronic stress exposure) when told that they need to work harder and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It is not an equal playing field and the economic deck is clearly stacked against people of color.
I’m not discouraged by the scope of the problem. And I’m not afraid to call racist attitudes and inequitable policies out for what they are. I’ve written articles on the impact of Covid-19 on minority communities and how the economic divide further exacerbates the coronavirus death count in impoverished areas.
I also put my money where my mouth is. My foundation, Focus for Health, is dedicated to addressing these issues head-on. We fund small, grass-root organizations who are in the trenches of affecting change and fostering a more equal world. Our grantees are addressing disparities in various areas, including maternal health among African Americans, mental health resources for men of color in urban areas, prison reform, improving education for children of color by addressing racism in schools, providing entrepreneurship opportunities for minorities in disenfranchised communities, and more. With an increase in economic opportunity comes an improvement in overall health. If we want a strong a nation that can rebound quickly from a viral pandemic, we must invest in all communities, especially those lacking resources, so we can keep all our citizens healthy.
I’m a member of “the 1%,” and I believe that we’re only as strong as our most vulnerable communities. I encourage others with the means to start investing in our at-risk citizens. We must start seeing ourselves as one nation. Americans of different colors, nationalities, faiths, lifestyles, etc. need to be treated with the same care and dignity that we treat ourselves. We are all interconnected, and our health is intertwined. Good health should not be a luxury item reserved for a few. Countries with low income inequality have better population health outcomes; their entire population is healthier. In other words, when “they” win, we win–we ALL win in a more egalitarian society.
Founder, Focus for Health Foundation
You have hit the nail on the head!
I believe a lot of this tendency to attribute poor health outcomes in certain groups to discrimination or neglect is wrong & unhelpful. The fundamental cause of excess morbidity is diet. While it is obviously easier for the rich to eat well, it is not impossible on a scant budget. Look at the demographics of soft drink and potato chip consumption. It may not be palatable, but one could replace that with inexpensive rice and lentils. Yes, I know. Sounds very unappealing. Still if children were educated at school about the direct consequences of what they eat and taught about food, the problems might improve. To see what some of them eat, it is clear they are not getting guidance from their parents. Of course, disparities in education are obviously a factor.
Thanks for your feedback. We strongly agree that diet is a very strong factor in learning, secondary health conditions, and quality of life. As we dove deeper into the issue we learned about the inequitable way food is distributed and marketed in America. Check out our article on food deserts and targeted marketing of junk foods to communities with lower incomes. https://www.focusforhealth.org/health-disparities-greedy-bastard-hypothesis/. We were shocked at how egregious the issue is. Thanks for engaging!