Guest Post: Honoring Asian and Pacific Islander heritage in the age of COVID-19

Conversations and healthy debate about issues facing our industry and the health care system are critical to addressing some of today’s challenges and opportunities. The Catalyst welcomes guest contributors, including patients, stakeholders, innovators and others, to share their perspectives and point of view. Today, we are pleased to welcome a guest post from Juliet K. Choi, executive vice president and chief of staff of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum (APIAHF), a national health justice organization which influences policy, mobilizes communities, and strengthens programs and organizations to improve the health of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a time to commemorate the contributions that people of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AA & NHPI) descent have had on our nation’s shared culture and history while rooting us in the present and looking ahead to the future.

This year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month carries a different weight for many in AA & NHPI communities as our nation grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has laid bare the disproportionate impact on our most vulnerable that stem from longstanding inequities. In the 11 weeks since the World Health Organization declared the pandemic my organization, The Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum (APIAHF), has rapidly responded, recognizing that these inequities threaten our collective response and health of AAs & NHPIs.

Due to existing health disparities and systemic barriers, including higher prevalence of chronic health conditions and barriers to health care, minority and immigrant populations are more at-risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Best available data from multiple states and municipalities indicate that AAs have a case fatality rate that is disproportionately higher than the general population. This could be because AAs are not getting access to testing or are more likely to die once infected, or both. And if we dig deeper, we know that AAs & NHPIs experience significant health disparities. When compared with non-Hispanic whites, AAs & NHPIs are more likely to develop tuberculosis, Hepatitis B and Cancer. Infrequent medical screenings and visits, lack of medical insurance, as well as limited English proficiency are all common barriers to healthcare for AAs & NHPIs.

This is why we at APIAHF have been working with national, state and local advocates to call for disaggregated demographic data on individuals with COVID-19. Because we need much more detailed information to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on AAs, NHPIs and other communities of color.

At the same time, legal, systemic and socio-economic factors impact AA & NHPI health and response to COVID-19. For example, access to health insurance coverage is uneven with millions of immigrants ineligible for Medicaid and other public insurance programs. That is a major challenge for the 60% of AAs who are immigrants and span every immigration status. This is why APIAHF is working with advocates nationwide to ensure that any congressional response includes testing and treatment for COVID-19 for all, no matter their immigration status.

Non-COVID-19 patients fluent in English struggle to communicate with their providers about how to control existing conditions, reschedule appointments and reduce their risk of becoming infected. Therefore, it is paramount that the 25 million Limited English Proficient (LEP) Americans receive linguistically appropriate services to address their COVID-19 and non-COVID related health needs. Our organization continues to emphasize the critical importance of including comprehensive language access in Congressional relief packages during this challenging time. And we have heard reports from our partners about what happens when language assistance is not available or provided to LEP persons. For example, we recently talked to the daughter of a woman in a Seattle hospital who is LEP and had COVID-19. She progressed to a point where she needed to be intubated, but the hospital did not make an interpreter available when making that decision. This woman faced an incredibly invasive procedure without having the opportunity, really the right, to understand what was happening to her in her preferred language.

Over 2 million AA & NHPI essential workers in health care, transportation and service industries face increased exposure to COVID-19. Unfortunately, Asian Americans on the frontline, who represent 18% of the country’s physicians, 10% of the nurse practitioners and 22% of pharmacists have been subjected to targeted racism and violence. APIAHF along with nine leading civil rights organizations believe that greater cultural competency and unification efforts are needed to stop COVID-19 related prejudice and discrimination in its tracks.

We all have a unique role to play in combatting this harrowing pandemic. As the biopharmaceutical industry races to develop a vaccine and treatments at a record pace, our organization, together with our network of community partners, is doing our part by providing in-language COVID-19 resources to AA & NHPI communities while advocating for inclusive federal public health and economic relief. As summer approaches, our role as citizens to continue compliance with physical distancing practices is vital to slowing the spread of the virus and ensuring the safety of our most at-risk populations.

To commemorate this year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we can and must all work together to tackle one of the greatest public health crisis in modern history. Community and shared partnerships is how we have weathered tough times in the past and it’s the only way forward. Together, we can protect the health and well-being of all communities.

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