Other Voices

Not Me, Not My Brother, Not My Sister

This is not about me – not my problem personally. It’s a problem for other people and I feel for them. I really do.

In the midst of a health crisis, those words suggest we’re not serious about solving the problem for everyone. For decades now, we’ve heard it about obesity. And now we’re hearing it about COVID-19, too.

It’s someone else’s problem. I’ll be OK.

The Demographics of Risk

We’ve long known obesity is a disease that discriminates. Yes, people from all economic and social groups can have it. But the burden falls especially hard on racial and ethnic minorities. Poverty is a factor, too. Likewise, it’s becoming apparent that COVID-19 kills more Latinos and Blacks than Whites. People in “essential” service jobs face higher risks, even though they get lower pay for those risky jobs.

Meanwhile, the pandemic is a very different experience if you’re privileged and white. It’s an inconvenience to be working from home. Suddenly you have to be with your spouse and kids 24/7. You mean I have to wear a mask when I’m around other people! Bummer. But not immediately life-threatening.

In a similar fashion, disparities in obesity care are well-documented.

Dissociating from the Risk

One of the basic facts of life in obesity care has long been that the O-word is very polarizing. People will go to great lengths to explain that, even though they might be a little overweight, obesity is not their problem. That’s how stigmatized the condition is. Politicians are using obesity to insult their rivals. It’s despicable.

Likewise, people are thinking that COVID-19 is someone else’s problem. From day one, much of the reporting has focused on risk factors – being older, male, having obesity or another chronic disease. All of these suggest you might have a harder time in one of these risk groups. Meanwhile, some people – falsely, it turns out – started thinking that if they were young and healthy, they’d be fine.

So all the focus on risk factors breeds complacency. In a report from a wealthy Atlanta suburb opening up last week, the indifference was clear. One man, shopping with his wife at Anthropologie, explained:

It’s a personal choice. If you want to stay home, stay home. If you want to go out, you can go out. I’m not in the older population. If I was to get it now, I’ve got a 90 percent chance of getting cured. Also, I don’t know anybody who’s got it.

 From that same shopping oasis, Scott Friedel made the point succinctly:

When you start seeing where the cases are coming from and the demographics — I’m not worried.

Who Deserves Less Health?

The U.S. has the worst record on health disparities of any country in the world, except Chile and Portugal. Racial and ethnic disparities are especially glaring. Writing the in New York Times, sociologist Sabrina Strings traces the roots of disparities for African Americans to slavery:

The era of slavery was when white Americans determined that black Americans needed only the bare necessities, not enough to keep them optimally safe and healthy. It set in motion black people’s diminished access to healthy foods, safe working conditions, medical treatment and a host of other social inequities that negatively impact health.

Living in a society of such great health disparities might desensitize us to the suffering of others. But the truth is that everyone deserves good health. What’s more, health disparities are costly to us all. They are  an economic burden that runs into the trillions of dollars. No matter how hard we try, we cannot shield ourselves from the suffering of others. It comes home to roost.

Conversely, when all of us enjoy better health, we prosper all the more.

Click here for more on health disparities in the U.S. and here for more on the economic burden that results.

Other Voices, photograph © Fan D / flickr

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May 26, 2020