Op-Ed: Policy makers must take more actions to protect African Americans against the Coronavirus

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Dr. Asefa Jejaw Mekonnen

By Dr. Asefa Jejaw Mekonnen

As a pulmonary and critical care medicine consultant and physician, I am urging African American policy makers to take more actions to protect African Americans against the coronavirus. If not, multiple deaths will continue to occur.

As of April 28, it was estimated that 3,042,444 people had been infected with coronavirus worldwide, with 211,216 fatalities. In the U.S. alone, 1,010,313 had contracted the virus, with 56,649 deaths reported. The cities of Chicago, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and South Carolina have reported numerous deaths of African Americans due to COVID-19.

In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan called the disparity among African Americans “disturbing.” Black Marylanders make up 52 percent of the deaths from coronavirus, despite only being 31 percent of the state’s population. In Chicago, 68 percent of the deaths were recorded as African Americans, although that group is only 30 percent of the population.

In Louisiana, where African Americans make up 33 percent of the population, data shows they represent more than 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths. In Albany, GA, which has the highest number of deaths from COVID-19 in the state, more than 90 percent of the fatalities are African-American.

It is no secret that a high number of African Americans are at risk for exposure to, and infection by, the virus because of multiple socio-demographic factors. They will do worse once they get the disease due to pre-existing chronic medical conditions like hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and sleep apnea.

In addition, many African Americans and other people of color work in the service sector as custodians, grocery store workers, bus drivers, postal employees and agriculture workers. They are considered essential to their companies.

As an outspoken advocate of health disparities affecting the African American community, I recently told members of three policy organizations that, despite African Americans being disproportionately impacted, very little is being discussed as a solution to protect this vulnerable population.

In a conference call on April 24, I addressed members of the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance, Inc. (HBTSA); National Policy Alliance; and World Conference of Mayors.

I urged these influential African American policy makers to take more actions to protect the most vulnerable in our communities. I recommended several solutions that I believe could keep us from losing a generation.

I noted that more strategies should be put into place for this group that exceed social distancing and staying at home. Staying at home is a luxury for many low-income and poor families where people have to go to work to make ends meet. An African American COVID-19 patient may have a difficult time having a separate bed and bedroom to convalesce at home without infecting his or her family member. “Domestic spread’’ is a major threat to many African American families.

I pointed out how misinformation on how African Americans cannot get the virus has been detrimental to the population. Fueled by the absence of coronavirus cases in Africa, initially, and the belief that the virus was associated only with foreign travel, many African American on-line sites took light of the deadliness of COVID-19.

As a result, a strategy needs to be put into place immediately with solutions that will prevent and mitigate further loss of life, with the focus on immediate and long term goals. Urgent action plans should include a targeted educational campaign to correct misinformation about the effect of COVID-19 on persons of color.

African American media outlets, religious groups, and celebrities should intensify any present efforts on their part. Physicians and health care providers of color should step up and join the information campaign. It is well documented that the African American community has a lack of trust in the overall health care system due to unethical and cruel experiments of the past.

To reduce the risk of domestic exposure, infection, and multiple deaths in African American family members who reside in crowded and multigenerational families, patients with COVID-19 should be given special treatment. These individuals should be offered a separate makeshift recovery facility with provision of appropriate medical and social care.

Targeted testing of contacts needs to include mobile testing units that can navigate the neighborhoods taking the test to where it is needed.

Additionally, the distribution of free face masks, disinfectants, and food should follow a similar route. Long term strategies must include access to internet connectivity in low-income families for virtual medical care.

There must be environmental justice to improve air quality in low-income neighborhoods to improve respiratory health.

There must also be more emphasis on proper nutrition.

Lastly, we must also address economic fairness to include differential compensation for high-risk, front line jobs. Health is a basic human rights issue.

All of this needs a coordinated, well thought out national program that will ultimately lead to health and economic equality.

The status quo has been a disgrace to the wealthiest nation of the world. After multiple casualties, actions should be proactive and reactive.

In the past, segregation, racial inequalities, and blatant discrimination trapped people of color in abject poverty where affordable healthcare and affordable housing were out of reach.

The results of that is rearing its head today. African American stakeholders can make a difference by wielding their influence today to protect the most vulnerable in society.

A former pulmonary section head at Suburban Hospital/Johns Hopkins medicine and a consultant intensivist in Critical Care medicine at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Gaithersburg, Mekonnen is a partner at Rockville Internal Medicine Group.

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