In summary

The COVID-19 pandemic is magnifying decades of inequities in communities of color that have less access to health care.

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By Kiran Savage Sangwan, Special to CalMatters

Kiran Savage Sangwan is the executive director of the California Pan Ethnic Health Network, a statewide health advocacy organization, She wrote this commentary for CalMatters. 

There is broad acknowledgement across the state that communities of color, particularly black and Latino communities, are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This, unfortunately, does not come as a surprise to our community partners who are on the ground each and every day, seeing the lack of resources for groups that face stigma, implicit bias and language access barriers to care, treatment and beyond.  

All this should serve as a call to action for each and every one of us. The COVID-19 pandemic is magnifying decades of pervasive and systemic inequities that lead communities of color to have a higher burden of chronic disease, less access to health care and, ultimately, shorter life expectancies.  

Unless we act swiftly and decisively to target every part of our pandemic response to these disparities, we will make them worse still for generations to come. Equity is not one of the many issues we must tackle today, equity is the critical issue on which we must focus. 

This is why the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network and our coalition, Having Our Say, comprised of over forty racially and ethnically diverse Community Based Organizations, submitted a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and health officials, asking the state to prioritize funding to ensure our communities have access to timely, accurate, culturally and linguistically appropriate information, inclusive and diverse health care and mental health providers as well as universally accessible and no-cost treatment. 

Black Californians make up 12% of deaths, nearly double their share of the state’s population. Latinos age 18-34 comprise more than two-thirds of all deaths in that age bracket, an age range otherwise considered to be “low-risk.” Disaggregated data in Los Angeles County show that Pacific Islanders are 12 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts.  

But these numbers only tell a small part of the story. 

California does not currently produce data on COVID-19 tests administered by race, leaving a gaping hole in our understanding of the racial disparities at play. Only two states – Illinois and Kansas – currently report this data, and both have found that blacks and Latinos are vastly under-tested. This means that both the case rate and the death rate for these communities is likely higher than currently reported in California. Even if someone dies from the virus, if they were not tested this would not be counted as a COVID-19 fatality. 

It is likely that the virus is more widespread in communities where residents have less access to accurate and timely public health information, less ability to shelter in place or self-isolate due to being low-income essential workers, living in crowded housing conditions, and not having adequate access to protections such as paid sick leave. It is imperative that we quickly build wrap-around social supports that will allow our most vulnerable Californians to protect themselves and others from the virus. While we may be facing difficult economic times, we must not shortchange these investments. 

Other barriers that must be removed include drive-thru only testing, which by design necessitate access to a car – a commodity that many low-income communities do not have as many heavily rely on public transit. In addition, testing sites lack interpreter services and have limited operating hours that fail to accommodate the schedules of essential workers and their families.  

One effective strategy is to establish mobile testing sites on the premises of established community organizations that are widely trusted and accessed. Our partner, Roots Community Health Center in Oakland has recently been established as a testing site and provides services to many formerly incarcerated individuals. 

This is a moment in which we must have an honest conversation about race and equity and take immediate action to protect all Californians.  


Kiran Savage Sangwan is the executive director of the California Pan Ethnic Health Network, a statewide health advocacy organization, She wrote this commentary for CalMatters. 

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