Guest Op-Ed: Pandemic Spotlights Disparities in Health and Maternal Care

By Judith Garcia

As the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the nation over the past year, racial disparities in the healthcare system are finally getting the attention they deserve from policymakers. Now, lawmakers and local leaders across the nation are trying to figure out not just how to address disparities in how we handle the pandemic, but also how we combat them more broadly in our healthcare system.

All along the way, communities of color have borne a concerningly significant portion of the burdens created by the pandemic, both early on in the crisis and today. Massachusetts is no exception to these disturbing trends, either. Even now, as health officials move to vaccinate as many Americans as possible as quickly as they can, Black and Latino communities have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state, with low vaccination rates in predominantly minority communities highlighting already pervasive inequities.

In fact, when releasing new research on the pandemic just this month, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Wolensky pointed out that the agency’s new research serves as “just the most recent and glaring example” of some of the most pervasive and troubling inequities in healthcare today.

Healthcare disparities have existed since long before the pandemic, however. Some of the most alarming inequities are those affecting Black mothers. According to the CDC, the maternal death rate for Black women in the United States in 2019 was 44 deaths per 100,000 live births, 2.5 times higher than white women and 3.5 times higher than Hispanic women. And, as Axios noted recently, the United States is one of the only nations where that number is on the rise. This is a crisis that both the public and private sector must work to address here in our state and nationwide.

Solutions could be on the way, though. In Massachusetts, we’re fortunate to be represented by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who has made addressing racial disparities in maternal care a top priority, acting as a founding member of the Black Maternal Health Caucus in Congress. In that role, she’s spearheaded various legislative efforts to work toward erasing racial inequities in maternal care, including the Black Maternal Health Omnibus Act, which has the specific aim of fighting these disparities head-on.

Congress isn’t alone in fighting those disparities, though. A number of businesses and nonprofits are stepping up to help make healthcare more equitable and make sure everyone has the fair opportunity they deserve.

March of Dimes, a nonprofit working to improve healthcare for mothers and their children, has a long-standing partnership with Philips that provides critical resources and healthcare technologies for mothers of color. Stork’s Nest, for example, helps to address problems in early and prenatal care in vulnerable communities by providing mothers with tablets and software that provide maternal care resources, while Mission: Healthy Baby provides new mothers with essential items like baby monitors, bottles, and more. 

Partnerships like this are going to be a crucial part of combating inequities in healthcare. By finding new and innovative ways to provide new mothers with the resources they need, as Philips and March of Dimes have done, we can take that all-important first step in making care more equitable. As they do this, I hope that they will be able to count on legislative leaders like Congresswoman Pressley to help support policies that encourage these kinds of new efforts to combat disparities.

Of course, the reach these companies have extends well beyond just one aspect of healthcare. Philips, for example, has a large presence right here in Massachusetts, providing valuable jobs at their Cambridge facility that further contribute to making high quality healthcare more broadly available to those who need it most.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and emphasized some of the most pressing disparities in healthcare, and finding ways to address those both in Washington, in Massachusetts, and beyond will be essential in reducing inequity more broadly. By lifting and supporting innovative solutions though, lawmakers can put us on the right track.

Judith Garcia is a Chelsea City Councilor District 5.

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