We’re not going back to normal. We died in normal: America needs to face health inequity

Let's confront underlying health disparities that contributed to excess Black deaths from COVID-19 and remain the silent killers that haunt America.

Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, Dr. Reed Tuckson, Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford and Debra Fraser-Howze
Opinion contributors

In April, during National Minority Health Month, community and health leaders, legislators and allies across the nation have united to secure resources and mobilize to address health disparities that have impacted the Black community and other people of color for decades and have gotten worse since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Black people continue to die from COVID-19 at a rate nearly double the white population in large measure because of preexisting health conditions and low vaccination rates. Our population stands directly at the nexus of both a pandemic and an epidemic – an epidemic of health disparities that includes obesity, hypertension and diabetes – creating a rippling of consequences that threatens the livelihood of the Black community and will continue taking Black lives for years to come.

Everyone keeps saying, "We can’t wait for things to get back to normal," and we say, "We’re not going back to normal. We died in normal."

Black clergy, Black medical community take action

Therefore, as members of the Black clergy and the Black medical community, we have come together under the banner of Choose Healthy Life to address health disparities in our communities – by cultivating a faith-based, health workforce that has administered nearly 100,000 COVID-19 vaccines and tests in hard-to-reach communities.

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And although the pandemic is hopefully winding down, a federal judge, who is not a health expert, has issued a ruling that prohibits some mask mandates on public transportation. 

Waiting for a COVID-19 test to process in 2021 at the Houston airport.

We still advise our community to operate out of an abundance of caution for their health, and out of love for the lives of others, to continue to wear masks in indoor settings outside of the home until such time as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials make the science-based determination that masks are no longer necessary to protect the health of the public.

It is time for us to confront the underlying health disparities that contributed to excess deaths from COVID-19 and remain the silent killers that haunt our community.

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Obesity is a good example as one of the underlying causes for diabetes and hypertension. Black America has seen intimately how this growing epidemic is ravaging our mothers, fathers, children, neighbors and communities. In fact in America today, 80% of Black women live with pre-obesity (overweight) or obesity and as a result are at higher risk for heart disease, stroke and cancer. Black Americans are 77% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes and are likely to have high blood pressure more than any other population group.

Moreover, COVID-19 has been a dramatically more dangerous virus for people living with obesity. This was observed by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra: “COVID-19 and the risks it presents to those with obesity have given even greater urgency to our efforts to treat it and beat it.”

Despite a landmark 2013 declaration by the American Medical Association to recognize obesity as a disease, policies in our federal health programs remain woefully behind, which perpetuates stigmas and misconceptions around obesity.

Getting a COVID-19 booster shot on Feb. 5, 2022, in Lowell, N.C.

The cost of these cultural misconceptions is catastrophic. While these discriminatory policies affect all Americans, Black communities bear the brunt here. Just like how gun violence and homelessness strike our community most acutely, due to systemic inequities and legislative missteps, the obesity epidemic also threatens Black Americans disproportionately.

Reform health programs

Such is the case with our federal policies, where for example as a result of out-of-date exclusions, less than 1% of seniors on Medicare and only a small fraction of Medicaid beneficiaries have access to obesity care, and the treatable disease emerged as the second leading cause of preventable death in America.

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The data is clear. Why then, is obesity care not fully covered under our federal health programs? For Black Americans – exclusions like these can mean the difference between life or death.

National Medical Association President Dr. Rachel Villanueva recently asserted that obesity rates were alarming for African Americans long before the pandemic captured the country's attention. She affirmed that “as we consider our way forward with COVID-19 not quite in the rearview, the NMA remains committed to focus on solutions to eliminate the racial disparities in obesity and its treatment, as we advocate for health equity in our communities." 

The numbers speak for themselves – our Black communities across the country are suffering. Given what’s at stake, this is a time for action.

On behalf of our community, we’re calling on our leaders in Washington, D.C., to meet this historic moment – a national reckoning around health equity – and take immediate action to expand access to lifesaving therapies. This small fix to our federal health care policies can have a monumental impact for nearly half a million Black Americans on Medicare who lack access to lifesaving care, as well as the 9 million Black Baby Boomers who are hitting the Medicare age at a rapidly growing rate.

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In tandem, state leaders should work to ensure obesity care is fully covered through Medicaid, to ensure low-income Americans and Americans living with disabilities have access to the care they deserve.

Addressing the devastating obesity rates among Black Americans can save lives and make meaningful progress toward health equity. Our elected leaders must prioritize addressing health disparities like obesity.

If policymakers don't act rapidly, we’ll continue to lose our loved ones to a problem that has a solution well within reach. Every day without action sends a message – one all too familiar – to our community loud and clear: Advancing Black health and prosperity is not a priority.

If Black lives truly matter, it’s time to act and create a “new normal” to ensure that countless Black Americans can Choose Healthy Life.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, president and CEO of the National Action Network, and the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of The Abyssinian Baptist Church (Harlem), are co-chairs of Choose Healthy Life. Dr. Reed Tuckson, co-founder of the Black Coalition Against COVID-19, and Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity medicine physician scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, both serve on Choose Healthy Life’s Medical Advisory Board. Debra Fraser-Howze is founder of Choose Healthy Life.