Editor’s note: NJ Spotlight News celebrates the second anniversary of the arrival of COVID-19 in New Jersey, focusing on how the disease has changed our lives and what life looks like now. This story focuses on racial disparities in health care that became even more serious during the pandemic. You will find all our stories related to the pandemic here.
The onset of the pandemic sparked strong support for the Social Justice Movement, as COVID-19 uncovered structural and systemic inequalities from which families of blacks, Hispanics, and Indigenous people felt the superiority of whites.
This movement quickly prompted government officials and health administrators to recognize the hand of racism in creating worse health outcomes for these groups. In New Jersey, the Murphy administration discussed during numerous media briefings about COVID-19 that black and brown families are dying from the disease at a higher rate. In June 2021, Murphy signed into law to establish a task force to combat the COVID-19 pandemic on racial differences and health imbalances, sponsored by predominantly black and brown women lawmakers.
The message was clear: racism made the coronavirus instantly more deadly to people in these groups than their white counterparts because they also had higher rates of comorbidities. According to an analysis of the COVID tracking projectNew Jersey Latinos were more likely to be infected with COVID-19, and black New Jersey residents were hospitalized or died of COVID-19 than other residents between 2020 and 2021.
Experts note that black and brown people are more likely to live or work in situations that expose them to a higher risk of infection than white people, and they are less likely to have easy access to high-quality diagnosis or care if they become ill. They say systemic racism in housing, employment and health is exacerbating the gap. State figures show black New Jersey residents at least twice as likely to get to the hospital or die from COVID-19 compared to white residents. In 2020, COVID-19 was the leading cause of death among black residents of the state.
“If you had economic justice in this country, you would have the disease manifested equally in different races.”
“There’s a phrase similar to the fact that when America catches a cold, black people get the flu,” said Michelin Davis, president and CEO of National Health Scholarships, referring to the different health outcomes of black Americans and their white counterparts. Davis previously served as Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Officer of RWJBarnabas Health.
While racial differences in the results of COVID-19 have been widely discussed in the media, health systems and federal and state governments, the path to resolution has been one of the levels and minimums, say leading health experts, adding that the only however, the way to change the situation is to eradicate racist health policies, political and social policies responsible for promoting racial inequality. But it depends on the extent to which the white-majority government is ready to accept social change.
Nothing new in racial disparities
“You can fight COVID as a patch, or you can fight what fuels COVID and HIV, as well as obesity and cardiovascular disease – which means higher-level problems [like] economic justice, “said Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health.” If you had economic justice in this country, you would have the disease manifested in different races. “
This was something that experts like Davis and Chalkitis – and the communities themselves – already knew while the rest of America was catching up.
“There was nothing new [about racial disparities in health outcomes]. It did exactly that to those of us who knew that these communities had already been deliberately fragmented, and that as a result of anything that would come like a pandemic wave, they would just expose them, ”said Davis, leader of the Justice Movement. in health care.
Part of the problem with the different responses to COVID-19 is that it is unclear how governments across the country understand the legacy of racist policies, such as the red line that defines where non-white people can live, affecting their access to education, work and health care to date – and their contribution to the deterioration of COVID-19 outcomes for blacks, Hispanics and Indigenous people.
Davis said she was worried at the start of the pandemic when, according to first reports from Europe, COVID-19 seemed to affect only the elderly. At the same time, she said, black and brown Americans had similar conditions as older people, but at a younger age. It was “interesting,” Davis said, to watch the government and the media struggle – and sometimes grope – over why COVID-19 was more fatal to some non-white communities. “It was also very indicative of the lack of education of America’s own history … It also reflects what we saw during COVID, and it was what we saw of policies defined through privileges,” she said.
At first, some low-income and / or black and Hispanic New Jersey found it difficult to access testing and vaccinations. Davis stressed that testing for COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic was only available to those who could drive up to the test facilities, essentially except those who depended on public transportation.
Once vaccines became available, signing up for them proved challenging. People were forced to search the internet for appointments through several portals or travel for hours to get the first dose. And these vaccination appointments were also initially only available to those who had computers – and time – to provide high-demand meetings, said Brittany Hall-Tradie, a senior analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective.
“The initial problem we had with their deployment and accessibility for everyone was a lot in the beginning:“ Do you have time to sit at the computer? Spend hours trying to get this one meeting, and that’s for a month? ” she said.
Another response to the pandemic – checking the Trump-era stimulus – was also difficult for some communities to get, explained Hall-Trundi, who wrote a report for 2020 entitled “Unprecedented and unequal: racial inequality in the COVID-19 pandemic».
Unbalanced approaches to COVID-19 continued when the Omicron wave hit the U.S. in December, and testing was another example of an equal but not fair response. People who could afford it rushed to buy kits for testing at home, which, as noted by the epidemiologist of the University of Moncler, Dr. Stephanie Silver, may cost more than the hourly wage of some people. And while the Biden administration made home-based test kits available to every American, only four were allocated to each family, and families had to sign up for them via computer, and delivery of tests took weeks if not months. .
Thus, testing has become another example of an equal but not fair response.
“We know that in some communities there are more than four people in a family,” Silver said. “This is the only approach for everyone. And we know that when we use that approach, it gives certain people privileges over others. ”
Holam-Trundy noted that access to vaccinations has improved over time. The state worked to make the images available not only at remote mega-facilities, but also at the local level through pharmacies and mobile clinics that met people in their neighborhoods. Testing for COVID-19 is also becoming easier to find, according to Silver, who called the final improvement in access “slow spread”.
In New Jersey, the Murphy administration and local officials worked on the widespread availability of testing and vaccination, and in their approaches to COVID-19 there was racial and economic justice. Most non-white cities like it Patterson, Newark and East Orange set up mobile clinics to conduct surveys and vaccinations for their residents, s community members sometimes take matters into their own hands. And Murphy continued to acknowledge that black and brown New Jersey residents face more barriers to COVID-19 treatment and are dying at a faster rate. His task force is working to combat this.
But what the task force will achieve remains to be seen, as research and elimination of racial injustice takes time.
“Maybe we need to reconsider the value we attach to this work and pay people accordingly.”
Health leaders and community advocates agree that the goal now is to continue the momentum on the equal changes that New Jersey and the federal government have applied in their responses to COVID-19 – and make them permanent. Further use of mobile clinics and health care, or what Holam-Trundi has called “meeting people where they are”, are part of what they see as these positive changes. But to provide racially fair health care, she said, people need health insurance to afford health care. Murphy also gave priority to expanding access to health insurance and Medicaid, which grew significantly in the first year of the pandemic.
Halkit said the American healthcare community needs a “paradigm shift” in which providers think more about people themselves and what they feel on a daily basis, not just about how they look like patients. Silver said society should also extend this sympathy to those who, in the midst of the pandemic, are engaged in what is called “core work”. These roles, which are often underestimated, include supermarket workers, cleaners or garbage collectors, positions that involve a high risk of exposure to COVID-19 and are likely to be occupied by black and brown people.
“Maybe we need to reconsider the value we attach to this work and pay people accordingly,” Silver said.
Part of this restructuring could happen through expanding the diversity of management positions in industries, especially in government and the medical field, Davis said. But for them to work, these voices need to be seen, heard and raised, she added.
“You need to have a leadership that understands what we’re talking about today to ensure a fairer tomorrow,” Davis said. “And all the talk in the world, all the declarations of anti-racism in the world … it won’t matter if we don’t really start to see change there.”