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Bone and Joint Wellness

What Needs to Be Done to Address COVID-19 Health Disparities

Shilpa Venkatachalam, Ph.D., MPH

Associate Director, Patient-Centered Research, CreakyJoints and the Global Healthy Living Foundation

Research has demonstrated that people living with autoimmune forms of arthritis and other chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer are at potentially higher risks of infection and, if infected, may develop severe complications from infection. 

During an April meeting of the Global Healthy Living Foundation COVID-19 Patient Leadership Council, patient leaders with many of these conditions expressed concerns about growing health disparities among people falling ill with COVID-19. 

This first became apparent when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that black Americans and Hispanics were disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Despite representing only 13 percent of the U.S. population, black Americans accounted for 33 percent of those hospitalized. On the other hand, white Americans accounted for 45 percent of hospitalizations, despite comprising 76 percent of the population.

Shining a light on disparities

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the decades-long structural inequalities within our societies resulting from and perpetuating racial and social disparities faced by specific populations. Widespread inequities in housing, access to education, healthcare, nutrition, job security, and sanitation, among other stressors, have led to comparably poorer health outcomes for disadvantaged communities. 

As a result, black and LatinX populations have higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity not because they make poor choices, but because they are simply not afforded choices available to more advantaged groups. 

Specific to the pandemic, public health mandates like social distancing, while sensible, are challenging to comply with if you are among the poor and vulnerable sections of society. Working from home or receiving schooling at home is a luxury afforded to those who have access to the internet and a home computer. 

Assuming we all have equal access is, in itself, a violence against society’s most vulnerable, and a testimony to our ignorance and refusal to acknowledge years of systemic inequalities.

Changing perspectives

We need to look at health as an outcome of the environment in which people are born, live, work, and die. These environments play a large role in determining access to things that contribute to our quality of life. 

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers from a consortium of institutions and patient-facing organizations have come together to understand the impact of the pandemic on people with serious chronic diseases, including through the lens of racial and socioeconomic disparities. 

Disparities must be understood at all levels – locally and globally, among different patient communities, urban vs. rural settings – to develop meaningful management strategies.

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