Over the last several months, there has been a rash of optimists who have tried to lift our spirits by touting the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has “brought us all together.” Despite our collective desire to look for a ray of sunshine amongst the clouds, the stark reality we must acknowledge is that we have not all been impacted by the pandemic in the same way.
The stock market has soared, creating a wider economic divide, and tech companies have benefited, while traditional brick and mortar businesses have suffered, leaving vulnerable communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-related deaths than their younger, more affluent, heterosexual, and white peers. These vulnerable communities include minorities and other people of color, as well as the LGBTQ+ community.
To date, 487,000 Americans have died, or 1 in every 674 individuals in the United States. This is an astonishing number. However, the impact on marginalized people is nearly 50% worse than the general population.
Members of multiple minority groups, like non-white LGBTQ+ individuals, are even more likely to be negatively affected by coronavirus. Analysis of national data collected in the fall of 2020 found that around 15% of LGBTQ+ individuals of color tested positive for COVID-19, compared to 7% of their white non-LGBTQ+ peers. This comes despite the fact that members of this community ranked themselves as much more likely to practice safety precautions like social distancing and wearing masks.
These disproportionately poor outcomes for COVID-19 are a result of a variety of factors, many of which are woven into the fabric of our society so thoroughly that changing them can feel impossible.
Overall, the primary factor that drives these unequal outcomes is poverty. In the United States, Black, Hispanic, and Asian individuals are more likely than their white peers to experience poverty. This affects outcomes in healthcare in a few different ways.
In the United States, more members of minority groups and LGBTQ+ individuals work in occupations that have been deemed essential during the pandemic. These jobs include customer-facing positions like retail, grocery, and public transportation, as well as custodial jobs within healthcare settings, which puts them at even greater risk for virus exposure.
In addition to the risk inherent to these jobs, these occupations are less likely to offer paid sick days, forcing workers to choose between their health and their financial security.
Individuals from vulnerable communities are less likely to have reliable access to healthcare than their white peers. Their jobs are typically less likely to offer health insurance, and they may also experience obstacles when seeking treatment in the form of language barriers, cultural differences, and a historic distrust of healthcare and government workers stemming from past injustices.
Discrimination and implicit bias in healthcare take many forms. Often, it manifests when healthcare providers don't take the pain of their patients of color as seriously as their white counterparts. This implicit bias has caused many people of color across the country to forgo preventive care, putting them at greater risk when faced with the dangers of a viral pandemic.
Despite these increased risk factors, there are ways we can work to promote better COVID-19 outcomes for everyone, but most especially minority communities.
Here are some meaningful actions we can all take.
One of the easiest things we can do as individuals to protect each other from COVID-19 is to maintain ties with the most vulnerable members of our community. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Another way to reach more vulnerable communities is to empower and fund more grassroots organizations, which are typically seen as more knowledgeable and trustworthy than larger government or public health organizations.
These organizations, which often include charities and places of worship, have strong ties to the local community and can help to ensure critical information and resources reach those that need them most.
In the first days of the vaccine rollout, the majority of available doses went to private hospitals, rather than publicly run facilities that serve uninsured patients. Now, as our vaccine supply slowly increases, we’re seeing more and more states establishing programs that directly target their most vulnerable communities. Sending more vaccines to accessible local hospitals and pharmacies will help.
By taking action to fight against the systemic barriers to healthcare, we can help improve COVID-19 outcomes for all patients. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but by empowering grassroots community workers and healthcare activists, and acknowledging the limits vulnerable communities already face, we can start to make an unfair pandemic slightly more equitable.