COVID-19 Lays Bare Long Island’s Health Care Disparities
Gov. Cuomo has put New York State on PAUSE, directing all non-essential workers to work from home, and requiring everyone else to maintain a 6-foot distance from others in public. Thankfully, that bold strategy has flattened the COVID-19 curve, lowered infection rates and saved countless lives. The benefits, however, haven’t been universal.
Black and Hispanic families nationwide and here on Long Island face a much higher risk of contracting and dying from coronavirus. Health disparities on Long Island are nothing new, but the COVID-19 pandemic has laid them bare. Consider these numbers: Blacks make up 11.7 percent of Nassau’s population, but account for 18 percent of COVID-19 deaths. They account for roughly 8 percent of Suffolk’s total population, but account for 11 percent of deaths. Age-adjusted COVID death rates among Hispanics are roughly twice those for whites in both counties.
With almost 3,000 diagnosed cases to date, Brentwood – a mostly minority community – has more cases than 25 states and territories and more than six times as many cases as neighboring Dix Hills. In Nassau, Hempstead has had 1,528 confirmed COVID cases, eight times as many as neighboring Garden City, which is more affluent and overwhelmingly white.
Some of the differences may be attributable to the fact that, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people who have other health conditions — obesity, asthma, lung disease, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes — are at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19. All of those exacerbating conditions disproportionately impact people of color.
Racial and ethnic health disparities of all kinds have long been tied to structural inequalities in income, housing, jobs, and health care access. If some or all of this comes down to money, this crisis may make things worse. Many businesses, including restaurants, that employ low-wage workers have closed – some probably for good. Unemployment is skyrocketing. The digital divide and living conditions that make distance learning difficult will further hamper the education of black and brown kids. Two-generation families are crowding into the studio apartments in communities that are already struggling. All of this is bad for public health.
The bright spot in this crisis is that we’ve been reminded how courageous and deeply committed our first responders, doctors, nurses and healthcare workers are. Our appreciation for teachers has also grown immensely as we have struggled to keep our kids on a schedule and combed the web for Common Core answer keys. The coronavirus crisis has also highlighted the importance and dedication of “essential workers,” unsung heroes who are delivering toilet paper and dinners to our homes, sanitizing offices and cleaning up gloves in parking lots, working in supermarkets, convenience stores and gas stations, keeping the public transportation system functioning, providing social work services and childcare, and yes, working in healthcare.
While many of us worked remotely while sipping coffee in the comfort of our homes, tens of thousands of our neighbors traveled to work each day, laboring for upwards of 12 hours before returning back home, petrified that they’d been infected and frightened for the safety of their families. These are the same folks some have argued aren’t worthy of a $15 minimum wage.
As we begin our post-pandemic post-mortem, we owe all of our essential workers a huge thank you. More importantly, we owe them access to decent-paying jobs, affordable housing, accessible health insurance, comprehensive community services and a shot at staying alive.
This article first appeared in the April 22, 2020 edition of Long Island Business News