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by Dr. Kelvin Moses and Robert Ginyard   |   June 10, 2020

COVID-19 Highlights Existing Disparities in Medical Care for African Americans

Only together — regardless of our color, creed, or political beliefs — can we be #ZEROstrong.” For more on ZERO’s response to recent events and racial injustice, see a statement from President & CEO Jamie Bearse here

In this piece, authors Dr. Kelvin Moses, a member of the ZERO Board of Directors and the ZERO Medical Advisory Board, and Robert Ginyard, ZERO Board Chair, examine the racial disparities evidenced by African American patients in both prostate cancer and COVID-19, and offer a path forward. 

With high rates of COVID-19 in African American communities, the intersection of health and race in America is again at the forefront of the national conversation. Given the tragic status of ill-prepared medical facilities, or lack of accessible or affordable treatment for these communities, it’s a conversation that is irresponsible to ignore. 

The treatment and response of African Americans by the medical community during this outbreak is just one example of systematic oppression by a health care system that refuses to justly see or acknowledge pain and suffering in a certain population. Now, as Juneteenth approaches, it is impossible to ignore the echoes of subjugation and racism that linger in this nation’s health care systems.

The struggles imparted upon the African American community during COVID-19, are similar to those the community faces when battling prostate and other cancers. Inequities in care and perception are rampant when either of these illnesses presents in black men. 

African American men are about twice as likely to die from prostate cancer than Caucasian men — the same disproportionate ratio as COVID-19. Though there is some debate around whether this is due to genetics or socioeconomics for both diseases, it is likely that multiple factors play a part. 

When communities are denied access to quality healthcare service providers, they lose a lifetime of preventative care. Prostate cancer is almost 100 percent survivable when caught early, sparing patients from the intense treatments and potentially significant side effects of advanced disease.

Additionally, racial biases in hiring create less-than-ideal job prospects, making health insurance coverage partial or nonexistent. Egregiously expensive health care costs in the case of both cancer care and hospitalization for COVID-19 have forced many African American families to make an impossible choice: Avoid care and face death, or accept a lifetime of neverending debt. 

In cancer care and other medical specialties, disparities in the treatment and care of African American patients are well-documented. There are many instances of pain being downplayed or simply ignored, just because a patient was black. And too many times, this inherent bias has resulted in the loss of life.

We’re saddened that many members of the African American community will be unable to gather to honor Juneteenth. While we are thankful for the mandatory measures in place to ensure public health and safety, the irony of the first half of 2020 is hard to ignore. Traditionally, our community found strength in gathering. It’s our community’s strength and togetherness that ultimately led to the abolishment of slavery, which we’re celebrating this month. But now, when we’re forced apart, enslaved to a health care system that refuses to acknowledge or respect our pain and suffering, our community may feel alone and unheard. It’s time to not only recognize the struggles of African Americans in receiving fair and equitable medical care, but to force a change. The time has come.