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COVID-19 Crisis Highlights Ways to Combat Health Disparities for People of Color

The coronavirus pandemic is taking a disproportionate toll on people of color, joining the many health care disparities that people and communities of color as a whole, have historically faced. Unequal access to economic opportunities and health care facilities, structural inequality and discrimination are just some of the systemic hurdles that policymakers must address to close the health care disparities chasm faced by people of color. Now is the time to seek viable solutions to address those disparities that are realistically within our collective grasps.

As a member of the African American community, I am personally and communally affected by the insidious COVID-19. Every day I continue to see and hear how this deadly virus is impacting my community. The numbers reported are real. I know because currently my aunt is recovering from the virus.

The small silver lining so far in this public health crisis is that it highlights ways to help combat these health care disparities right now. The question is what can people of color do in the near term to minimize our chances of dying from this life-threatening illness and another deadly disease in the future?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that groups at higher risk for severe illness from the coronavirus include people of all ages with underlying medical conditions, particularly if not well controlled, including, but not limited to:

People with chronic lung disease
People who have serious heart conditions
People who are immunocompromised by cancer treatment, smoking, bone marrow or organ transplantation, immune deficiencies, poorly controlled HIV or AIDS, and prolonged use of corticosteroids and other immune weakening medications
People with severe obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 40 or higher)
People with diabetes

Some of these health care conditions are genetic or are caused by lack of health care access, but some we can avoid or minimize by 1) not smoking to minimize the chances of lung disease; 2) eating healthier, less sugary foods less likely to cause diabetes, heart disease and obesity; and 3) avoiding unsafe sex that could lead to HIV or AIDS.

Not coincidentally, Kaiser Health News reports: “Blacks and Alaska Natives have higher rates of…diabetes compared to Whites … nonelderly adult Alaska Natives are nearly twice as likely as Whites are to report having had a heart attack or heart disease. Black, Hispanic, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians Other Pacific Islanders nonelderly adults and Black and Hispanic children also are more likely to be obese compared to Whites. Compared to Whites, Blacks have an over eight times higher HIV diagnosis rate and a nearly ten times higher AIDS diagnosis rate, and the HIV and AIDS diagnosis rates for Hispanics are more than three times the rates for Whites.”

If you’re a person of color of any age, but especially if you suffer from a life-threatening disease, you can use the coronavirus as motivation to discuss your end-of-life care wishes with your family members. Start having these family conversations, complete an advance care directive detailing your wishes for end-of-life care if you cannot speak for yourself and appoint a health care proxy to ensure your health care providers know what you want and don’t want.

I’m well aware that these conversations are difficult because my dad died without discussing his end-of-life care wishes with our family. When he could not speak for himself, we had no idea about his preferences and health care priorities. As a result, this lack of information caused needless suffering for him, and family infighting, guilt and heartbreak, because we never talked about it. Thankfully, there are online tools and resources available to help guide these conversations and to complete an advance care directive documenting the details of your preferred end-of-life care treatments.

For example, CompassionAndChoices.org, provides FREE end-of-life care fact sheets and planning tools to help you navigate your care options, including a COVID-19 specific planning guide. Take it from someone who knows first-hand experience, taking action now will reduce the stress of caregiving for your loved ones and the chances that you or they will needlessly suffer in death, whether it is in the near or distant future.

Brandi Alexander is the national director of constituency for Compassion & Choices, the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit organization dedicated to improving and expanding health care options for the end of life.

This op-ed was originally published by Inglewood Today and is published here with permission.

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