WASHINGTON — Health experts say they see significant evidence of differences in how blacks and whites are faring in the coronavirus pandemic — and it’s part of a larger structural issue in the health care system.
“There have been for decades now documented, systemic racial disparities in all aspects of health care, from access to ... once they even get to a doctor, whether they receive the same type of treatments," said Kavita Patel, a Yahoo medical contributor and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Patel and Leana Wen, an emergency room physician and the former health commissioner of Baltimore, discussed the racial-disparity issue in a wide-ranging interview about the coronavirus on Yahoo News’ “Skullduggery” podcast.
“I am looking out my window and just reflecting on the disparities among residents in my city,” Wen said. “You have neighborhoods in Baltimore that are just a couple miles apart where a child born today can expect to live 65 years or 85 years — a 20-year difference in life expectancy — based solely on the ZIP code into which she or he is born.”
Last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s foremost infectious disease expert, said the racial divide reminds him of a similar pattern he observed during the height of the AIDS pandemic, which disproportionately affected African-American men. Fauci helped lead the response to that crisis.
Fauci and other experts have pointed to the racial disparities in chronic health conditions that are associated with higher coronavirus mortality rates. Surgeon General Jerome Adams recently said his own health problems, including lifelong asthma, represent a “legacy of growing up poor and black in America.”
And a Washington Post report last week found that majority-black counties have three times the rate of infections and almost six times the rate of deaths as majority-white counties. At least 20,000 Americans have died of coronavirus as of Sunday, according to the latest tracking data from Johns Hopkins University.
In the “Skullduggery” interview, Wen recalled that when she was Baltimore’s health commissioner, she would display maps showing disparities for a wide range of health conditions.
“I actually stopped showing these maps of disparities, because it almost didn’t matter what you had in the legend — it was the same map over and over again — because the same areas that had high infant mortality also had high cardiovascular disease, also had high rates of death from gun violence, also had high prevalence of HIV and drug overdose, and, of course, also had high rates of incarceration and low socioeconomic status,” Wen said.
“And when I think about COVID-19 and the data that we’re now gathering, it's tragic but not at all surprising because ... this is just one more example of amplified disparities, disparities that are rooted in systemic racism and the historic inequities that got us to where we are, that are then amplified also by lack of access to health care.”
Patel said she has worked with former patients in recent weeks whose low-wage jobs require them to come to work as “essential” employees, even when they are uninsured and not offered protections such as paid sick leave.
“You actually have undocumented people who are picking our fruit and you have people of color who are checking our groceries and actually have zero rights,” Patel said. “We’re having to learn in the health care industry how to be advocates on multiple fronts.”
She added: “My fear is that we have preventable deaths — we have blood on our hands. And we have — I am worried, that we are not learning from that. That’s probably the most graphic I can be about it.”
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