Editor’s note: First in a series on the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and responses aimed at improving health equity. Click here to read part 2.
By now we’ve read headlines like these all too often: “Communities of Color Devastated by COVID-19.” Way back in March, available data started to show that vulnerable, minority communities were experiencing much higher rates of infection and hospitalization from COVID-19 than their white counterparts. New York City, New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Boston, where I live and work, all became ground zeros in our nation’s early battle with the pandemic. The numbers were astounding: Blacks and Latinos were four to nine times more likely to be infected by COVID than whites, even in our nation’s top hot spots. Was I surprised? Absolutely not.
A long view on health disparities
I’m originally from Puerto Rico, and grew up in a bilingual, bicultural home where I had a ringside seat to witness how the issues of race, ethnicity, culture, and language barriers intersected with all aspects of society. Currently, I’m a practicing internist at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), where I founded the MGH Disparities Solutions Center in 2005, which I led until becoming the Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer for the hospital last year. I’ve studied and developed interventions to address disparities in health and health care for more than two decades. My career has connected me to more than 100 hospitals in 33 states that are actively engaged in efforts to improve quality, eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in care, and achieve health equity. So, addressing disparities in care isn’t just a job for me; it’s my profession and my passion.
History teaches us that disasters — natural or man-made — always disproportionately harm vulnerable and minority populations. Think of Hurricane Katrina