As a medical and public health student quarantined at home with two physician parents and a new college graduate sibling, we can speak about the COVID-19 pandemic research, guidelines, and epidemiology around the dinner with relative ease. Everyone in my immediate family has experience with interpreting research and data; in fact, my sister’s first scientific paper was published in a journal a few months ago. In this way, because of our education levels, we are privileged. We can understand current recommendations; we can read the new research being produced daily; we can determine how best to alter our life practices to minimize our risk of contracting COVID-19. Living with an immunosuppressed mother, for my family shelter-in-place has meant nearly constant handwashing, disinfecting any and all groceries or packages that enter the home, quarantining my father to one side of the house whenever he sees patients. We know how to wear masks and to check for a proper seal. We know how to properly don and doff gloves after quick grocery store runs to prevent cross-contamination. Most importantly, we know how devastating COVID-19 could be to our family, and we understand why we must take these strict measures.
Americans have had a near-constant flood of COVID-19 related information from daily presidential press conferences to statuses on every social media platform. Misinformation is abundant. My chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, has attempted to combat this misinformation by creating a COVID-19 panel to present best practices, answer questions, and provide recommendations for our chapter members in Mobile, Alabama. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated comprises Black and African American, college-educated women who strive to achieve “Service to All Mankind.” Even amongst my highly educated and capable Sorors, it was very clear that there has not been a consistent message tailored for the Black community on who is at risk and how can we best keep ourselves and our community safe. I was particularly struck when a physician on the COVID-19 panel in our chapter meeting summarized her recommendations with the statement: “If you take a pill for something, you are at higher risk.” With that single phrase, every person on the Zoom conference understood the gravity of the pandemic.
While every woman in my sorority has obtained her college degree, we know that education does not fully protect us from all of the health disparities affecting Black women. Moreover, we all have cousins, grandmothers, siblings, aunts, uncles, and friends who live in these low-income communities hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. This fact is evidenced by the “Condolences” section in our chapter newsletter, which has tripled in size in just a month, and our “Get Well Wishes,” which has grown by an even larger margin.
Sure, Black families may have heard the surgeon general read data on Black and Latin communities’ health disparities on the news. We heard him tell us to wash our hands and take personal responsibility “for your big momma.” We have not seen how our communities can do these things; how “Big momma and them” can stay safe from COVID-19 while still managing her other comorbidities. The burden of “how” is placed on Black family members, who have the tools to interpret research, data, and guidelines. We are tasked to put this information into terms that our family members can understand with our regional dialects and vernacular. The responsibility falls on us to ensure that when our older family members leave the house, they place their masks on over their mouths and their noses, even though it is harder to breathe. We are tasked to stop chain text messages telling Black communities that taking future COVID-19 vaccines is akin to enrolling in the new Tuskegee Experiment. We are tasked with explaining what exactly a comorbidity is. And what happens to the families that are not as blessed as mine? What happens to the plethora of families that cannot call their niece, nephew, or cousin the doctor?
I chose to pursue medicine because I have seen health disparities in my family and my community firsthand. COVID-19 is making these disparities even harder for anyone to ignore. So, while I feel motivated and energized to dedicate my career to achieving health equity in this country, right now, I feel overwhelming fear. This pandemic has the potential to devastate my family, just as it has devastated Black families across the nation. But I also feel hopeful. Auto companies, streaming services, delivery companies, and insurance providers are flooding the airways, social media platforms, and radios with advertisements tailored to reflect our new reality. While bothersome, these commercials tell me that the United States has the media infrastructure available to provide culturally appropriate health education to our Black and Brown communities. And just as my fellow sorority members were able to effectively explain risk and comorbidity in less than ten words, I am confident that the medical and public health community can create a cohesive, unoffending message to deliver to our diverse communities.
Carrie Crook is a medical student.
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