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REPORT: Coronavirus pandemic has ‘unmasked’ the face of racism, inequities in Houston and the U.S.

HOUSTON – A national report released Thursday said the coronavirus pandemic has widened racial disparities across the U.S., creating a crisis that has contributed to increased death rates among Black and Latino communities.

The National Urban League’s 2020 State of Black America report, “Unmasked,” examines economic, health, civic, and other social systems impacted by COVID-19 and the effect that’s had on communities of color.

“This is a crisis,” said Marc Morial, CEO of the National Urban League. “Those with underlying conditions are more likely to get sick. Those that have less access to doctors and hospitals are going to be diagnosed much later. When they’re diagnosed much later, they are more likely to be hospitalized, they’re more likely to die,” Morial said Thursday at the National Urban League’s virtual presentation of the report’s findings.

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National and local health and civil rights advocates said the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed inequalities once hidden along the margins of society — high rates of unemployment, poor access to technology and health disparities, to name a few. The report concluded the pandemic “unmasked” the face of racism in the country.

Data collection remains ongoing throughout the pandemic, as various scientific and social researchers work to understand the pandemic’s toll on the nation. The report included data compiled through a partnership with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity. Its key finding was that Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people were getting sick and dying in higher numbers.

“African Americans and Latinos are more than three times as likely to contract the coronavirus as whites, and African Americans are nearly twice as likely to die. One reason the Black death rate from COVID-19 is higher than the Latino rate, even though Latinos are more likely to contract the infection, is because the Black population is older,” the report said.

Local advocates: report casts light on inequalities worsened by COVID-19 in Houston-area

Protesters who marched for justice through downtown Houston following the killing of George Floyd referred to racism as a pandemic within a pandemic. Local civil rights and health leaders said racial inequalities were to blame for the coronavirus’ effect on communities of color.

Especially its economic effect.

“When you talk about progress in our communities you’ve got to be talking about economics. That means I’m working every day. I’m paying my rent on time and I might even have a mortgage I’m paying,” said Judson Robinson, III, CEO of the Houston-area Urban League.

Service-industry jobs, civic, and industrial jobs tend to be predominately held by Black and Latino workers, according to the report. Those are jobs where social distancing and other safeguards are tough to follow, Robinson said.

“So many of their jobs are service workers and face-to-face jobs. The fact (is) that only one in five African Americans can work from home,” he said, adding the goal of the report is to provide data-driven research that leads to policy reforms.

“We have to make the kinds of investment in our community to make the change that people are protesting and marching in the street for right this minute,” Robinson said.

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In fact, health advocates said economic shortcomings, compounded with other inequities, directly impact a community’s health profile.

“It’s long been known in our communities that historical factors such as red-lining, just the economic disparities, lack of equitable educational opportunities have long impacted our communities,” said Felicia Latson, Director of Social Determinants of Health, at Legacy Community Health.

Legacy Community Health operates several clinics throughout the Houston-area, serving patients who often go underserved or unserved in the healthcare center. That lack of access to healthcare, Latson said, is part of a toxic brew of inequity – one that creates a hold on people caught in it.

“All of those things overtime end up impacting a person’s health in the long run,” Latson said.

The COVID-19 infection rates are high among Hispanic and Black people nationwide, including Texas. Hispanic communities have been hit hardest in the Lone Star State.

“There are certainly many barriers,” said Dr. Chad Neimeyer, medical director of adult medicine at Legacy Community Health. Dr. Neimeyer works at Legacy’s northside location.

“One of the things that we’ve encountered recently is many of our patients may have work-related concerns or issues. Perhaps they don’t have the ability to work from home so that puts them in positions in which they may be exposed to coronavirus in the workplace or out in the community,” Dr. Neimeyer said. He added that preexisting conditions like hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure have also contributed to the virus’s impact on Black and Hispanic communities.

“I would say it’s something that not only impacts the patients we see but I think it’s throughout the community,” Dr. Neimeyer said.

Advocates said combatting those systemic inequalities are important in order to get a grip on health outlooks in communities of color.

Felicia Latson is a social worker. Her job at Legacy Community Health is to look for ways to develop programming that integrates social work in medicine.

“When we look at traditional medicine, it’s about engaging with a person after they are already sick and maybe prescribing pharmaceuticals and medication to control or manage that condition,” Latson said, before suggesting that model be changed – to focus on the social issues that may have led to poor health.

“What’s been in the literature for a long time now that’s actually catching on is that we really need to be addressing the social conditions causing some of these medical conditions prior to them getting to a point where medication is the only option for medication,” she said.