Responses to COVID-19 offer the chance to address racism in healthcare, experts said

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into stark relief how the health care system fails people with low incomes and people of color, panelists at a Duke University Margolis Center forum said last week.

Longstanding inequities in health care put people of color at greater risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms and death. The inequities continue with the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, with white people getting disproportionate share of vaccines.

“Our health care system doesn’t work well for low income, low health literacy, undocumented – that didn’t start with COVID,” said Abner Mason, founder and CEO of ConsejoSano, a company that works with health care providers and insurers on patient engagement that is multicultural and multilingual.

“It shocked people out of their relative acceptance of a horrible system,” he said.

Building trusting relationships with communities and individuals is essential to  improving health, the panelists said.

Students in the Margolis Scholars Program at Duke  organized the event.

Kumbie Madondo is director of Community Partnerships & Policy Solutions at the New York Academy of Medicine, which works with the New York City Department of Health. She said the city’s health department is addressing disparities and racism in healthcare.

“We need to call things as they are,” she said. “If there is racism in health care, call it for what it is. In the communities we serve, health disparities are borne out of racism.”

In North Carolina, Latinx communities get confusing information about vaccines, said doctors and community health workers.

Dr. Edith Nieves Lopez, a pediatrician at Lincoln Community Health Center in Durham said CDC information about COVID-19 does not translate well into Spanish.

“Sadly, there are few things that you find online that are culturally sensitive that can relay information in a few sentences,” she said.

Lopez said it was her job to get people in the community to trust her.

Increasing access to care and making sustainable change is important, said Onyi Ohamidike, a third-year medical student.

“Community members need to see people who look like them” and share their experiences, she said. Often blame is put on communities for not being able to trust, she said, taking the focus off institutions that should become trustworthy,

“We might all look at ourselves at great, kind, empathetic people,” Ohamidike said. “We need to recognize that we are attached to an institution that has harmed a lot of people.”

Griselda Alonso, a community health worker, said it is important to get people in the Latinx community clear and accurate information.

It’s hard for the Latinx community to trust medicine when last year, they heard about a doctor sterilizing women held in an ICE detention center, Alonso said.

“Try to be empathetic with my community,” she said. “Leave your privilege to the side.”

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