COVID-19 pandemic brings health disparities into sharper focus
As the pandemic continues, ongoing collection and analysis of statistics related to COVID-19 increasingly reveal disparities in availability of testing, prevalence of infection and mortality related to various demographics, including race, age, geographic and socioeconomic factors.
Kathleen Curran, Catholic Health Association of the United States senior director of public policy, said, “(With COVID-19) not all states are reporting racial and ethnic data on testing and death, but some are. Data show African-Americans are dying at a higher rate (than other racial groups). Hispanics are getting sick at a higher rate.”
Native American and Asian populations also have been hit hard by COVID-19, and older residents of institutional facilities such as convalescent and assisted care homes have suffered from the disease and the imposed isolation from each other and visitors, particularly family members, who provide vital social contact.
Curran said, “In nursing homes where a higher percentage of persons are African-American, there is a greater number of deaths and incidence of the disease.”
The data from COVID-19 seem to be consistent with that gleaned from studies of health disparities pre-pandemic.
“Health disparities are not a new thing,” said Curran. “COVID-19 has really brought them into focus.”
Many of the factors that contribute to COVID-19 health disparities are the “social determinants of health,” societal components that affect the health of individuals, families and community in general.
These include access to health and other education, high-quality medical care and nutrition, financial security, safe and healthy workplaces and living environments (personal and public), and other aspects of life necessary for individual and community thriving.
Because these complex issues are so interconnected, we might feel overwhelmed about what we can do as individuals or even one, single parish community.
Pre-pandemic, I began to notice intentional efforts by parish-based health ministries and/or faith community nurses, working with local hospitals and other medical centers, and I mention these here as potential ways for faith families to respond directly to disparities in their communities.
A health ministry, for example, can work with a local hospital to bring health-care education to the faith community, offer access to social resources and identify needs (safe housing, for example) that can become projects for service within the parish.
One local parish offers health programs around the holidays, when depression and other issues are more prevalent. But a health ministry can be formed and active at any time of the liturgical or calendar year.
Also, today many parishes have established a presence online.
A health ministry that has a footprint online can be a great way to communicate with current and potential parishioners about COVID-19 and local resources for help with other health issues.
Faith community nurses are typically trained registered nurses or social workers on staff who develop health-related parish programs (an asset as parishes seek practical guidance on reopening after COVID-19). They can help focus precious resources so that the needs of those most at risk are addressed.
For example, when a vaccine for COVID-19 becomes available, a faith community nurse can connect the parish with information on availability or provide suggestions for places within the community that might need targeted information (translations, for example).
The pandemic and the racism-related events of the past weeks have uncovered raw pain in our world. As I have found in my life with ongoing physical challenge, healing takes time and care, and faith is a powerful way to individual and communal peace.
We are all equal members of the body of Christ. Through our care for one another, we live our faith.
Pratt is a columnist for Catholic News Service.