November 2, 2020. By Akhila Boyina.
Imagine Jane, a hardworking American mother of four. She works two full time jobs, but has been struggling because she has lost some sensation in her legs due to her diabetes. She has been attempting to provide healthy food for her family and manage her diabetes, but barely has any time while also working her jobs and raising her kids. Now with the threat of COVID-19, she is at higher risk of developing complications, but she is an essential worker who has to keep working to provide for her family.
This story is all too common, and I have only heard it more after coming to medical school and talking to patients in the population we are working with as North Carolina Albert Schweitzer Fellows. Stories like these are even more common for Americans from communities that are facing profound social inequity. Communities facing social inequity are more at risk to both get infected and face complications of the virus, including death. It seems like these outcomes are inevitable, but they are not. If we all do our part and follow pandemic safety guidelines (such as by washing our hands, wearing masks, and social distancing), we truly can make a big difference in how these communities are impacted by COVID-19. In America, we show our patriotism through pride for our diverse communities and hardworking people, so let us practice that patriotism by protecting those around us, not only ourselves.
This pandemic has changed our lives for longer than we expected, frustrating a lot of people. We get it—we all want to forget this pandemic and move on. But that’s not a choice that the most vulnerable in our community can make. There have already been over 7 million COVID-19 cases and more than 200,000 deaths in America, and the numbers are still rising. Moreover, we know that COVID-19 has not been affecting our population equally. According to the CDC, as of August 2020, those of us hospitalized for COVID-19 are five time more likely to be Native American, Black, or Latino/Hispanic. During this hard time, we as a country should be helping the Americans who need it most – not knocking them further down.
COVID-19 has been disproportionately affecting our communities of color because they already faced greater health disparities compounded by social disparities. The pandemic has only put a magnifying glass to that fact. Higher rates of chronic illnesses within these communities leave them vulnerable to more severe disease, which as a medical student is an appalling fact of our society that I want to change.
As a North Carolina Albert Schweitzer Fellow, I specifically work with people who have diabetes, a disease that ranks as one of the leading causes of death in NC. It disproportionately affects people of color and those of lower socioeconomic status, which is a trend we also see here in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County. This reality is especially concerning as patients with diabetes and COVID-19 are almost 3 times more likely to be hospitalized and die with this disease.
COVID-19 makes us pay attention to the Pandora’s Box of health disparities and social inequities that society tries to keep locked away. Though it may not seem like it, we can make a big impact on these disparities just by practicing pandemic safety. Washing our hands, avoiding large group gatherings, wearing masks, and social distancing has proven to greatly decrease the number of cases. But we could take it one step further. We’ve known the inequalities that exist, so now is the time to take this wake-up call and use it to make systemic change.
You can hold the institutions you are a part of accountable. Encourage each other, including your government, to practice pandemic safety. We need to keep fighting for a better, more just America that is a country for the people. Just by washing our hands, social distancing, and keeping others in mind, we can do our part to decrease the effects of some of these disparities and help the people who need it most. In fact, we can all be patriots by caring for our neighbors, our fellow Americans, by enacting these small acts of kindness (wearing a mask and social distancing) creating a more just country along the way – a true act of patriotism.
Akhila Boyina is a second-year Wake Forest School of Medicine student and a 2020-21 North Carolina Albert Schweitzer Fellow.