COVID-19 should prompt Gov. Abbott to revive the Office of Minority Health

Dallas News

The emergence of the devastating COVID-19 crisis has forced every nation and people to recognize our interconnectedness. This pandemic has shifted the way we live, communicate and do business. It has cost many people their livelihoods and infected almost 6 million people globally. Still growing, the heart-breaking number of deaths is more than 350,000, to date.

Although every ethnicity and demographic has been catastrophically affected by this disease, the elderly and people of color are the populations most impacted. No population has been hit harder than African Americans, who make up 13.4% of the U.S. population. However, according to recent national reports, African Americans are dying at three times the rate of whites. While these numbers are disturbing, they are not entirely surprising. For some time now in Texas, we have been aware of significant health disparities.

In 1989, the late Texas Rep. Fred Blair passed legislation to create the Council on Minority Health Affairs. This interagency committee held statewide hearings to gather information and bring attention to health disparities between whites and people of color. Those hearings led Blair to create the Texas Office of Minority Health. Unfortunately, he was unable to obtain an appropriation to fund the office. In 1993, during my first year in the Legislature, I picked up his mantle and successfully authored legislation funding the Office of Minority Health. Over the years, several legislators, most notably, Rep. Garnet Coleman and former Rep. Dawnna Dukes continued efforts to stabilize and strengthen the office. In 2017, partisanship ruled the day and legislators dismantled the office.

It is time to honor the facts, and reinstate funding for the Office of Minority Health. A lack of access to health care and socioeconomic disparities factor in the COVID-19 crisis; those most impacted by the virus are often uninsured or have inadequate coverage. A serious analysis would likely show how difficult it is to manage diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, for which African Americans are disproportionately affected, and other illnesses without health insurance. Many African Americans who fell ill or died have poor working conditions and are essential or service workers who seldom have the choice to work remotely. They often work in crowded places and have to rely on public transportation, where social distancing is difficult, which heightens the risk of COVID-19 exposure.

There are a host of questions regarding the treatment of African Americans during this pandemic. Were African Americans disproportionately turned away for testing or treatment? Were there any instances of ambulances refusing to transport them? Many credible studies have validated that medical treatment for people of color is often different from that of whites who present with the same symptoms. Anybody who knows anything about disparities will understand these questions in view of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment conducted on African Americans by the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972.

At the root, these issues may appear to be solely African American. But they are issues for the whole of America; they penetrate the soul of who we are. There is a role for employers, philanthropists, insurance companies, private foundations, trusts, religious organizations, health care providers, and many others — and there is a role for government.

Gov. Greg Abbott created the Supply Chain Strike Force to provide medical solutions to contain COVID-19. He similarly created a strike force on reopening the economy. A governor-appointed task force for more all-encompassing health care to bring balance to health incongruity could make a significant difference in the advancement of Texas. Wise and nonpartisan leadership is the portal for which true change can occur. There is great need to address bias that hinders wholesome patient/provider engagement for everyone. Accountability is essential. Communication is crucial.

A structure that acknowledges that the breadth of humanity is interconnected, while simultaneously embracing the importance of properly dispersed resources just makes sense. What do you say, governor?

Helen Giddings is a former Texas legislator representing southern Dallas and DeSoto in the Texas House. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.


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