Socioeconomic impact of Covid-19 on healthcare

  • Unequal outcomes: mortician Cordarial O. Holloway, front left, funeral director Robert L. Albritten, front right, and funeral attendants Eddie Keith, rear left, and Ronald Costello place a casket into a hearse in Dawson, Georgia. Across the county, the latest Associated Press analysis of available state and local data shows that nearly one third of those who have died are African-American, with black people representing about 14 per cent of the population in the areas covered. Annabel Fountain aligns that with worse living conditions and suggests the evidence gives a clear sign that points to the existing socioeconomic disparities in majority-black Bermuda (File photograph by Brynn Anderson/AP)

    Unequal outcomes: mortician Cordarial O. Holloway, front left, funeral director Robert L. Albritten, front right, and funeral attendants Eddie Keith, rear left, and Ronald Costello place a casket into a hearse in Dawson, Georgia. Across the county, the latest Associated Press analysis of available state and local data shows that nearly one third of those who have died are African-American, with black people representing about 14 per cent of the population in the areas covered. Annabel Fountain aligns that with worse living conditions and suggests the evidence gives a clear sign that points to the existing socioeconomic disparities in majority-black Bermuda (File photograph by Brynn Anderson/AP)

  • Annabel Fountain, MD, is a Bermudian physician who is board-certified in endocrinology, diabetes and internal medicine. She is the owner and medical director of Fountain Medical Group

    Annabel Fountain, MD, is a Bermudian physician who is board-certified in endocrinology, diabetes and internal medicine. She is the owner and medical director of Fountain Medical Group


Covid-19 and the socioeconomic impacts on healthcare. In the Journal of the American Medical Association last week, Clyde Lancy reported that in Chicago, more than 50 per cent of Covid-19 cases and nearly 70 per cent of Covid-19 deaths involve black individuals. This is particularly notable because blacks make up only 30 per cent of the population there.

This pattern is repeated in Louisiana, where 70.5 per cent of deaths have occurred among black persons, who represent 32.2 per cent of that state’s population.

In Britain, of the first 2,249 patients with confirmed Covid-19, 35 per cent were not white. This is much higher than the proportion of non-white people in England and Wales, which was 14 per cent, according to the most recent census.

Even medical staff are vulnerable to these disparities. The first ten doctors in Britain reported to have died from Covid-19 were all from Black, Asian or other Ethnic Minorities.

Johns Hopkins reports that the Covid-19 infection rate in US counties populated predominantly by people of African heritage is more than threefold higher than that in predominantly white counties. The death rate for predominantly black counties is six times higher than in predominantly white counties.

You can see where I’m going with this.

I’m worried about Bermuda, where most of our population is black. As of April 14, 2020, only 22 per cent of Covid-19 cases reported in the United States specified the race of the patient.

Bermuda’s Ministry of Health has started to report the race of the Covid-19 cases.

Fifty-two per cent of Covid-19 cases in Bermuda reported have been Black. The racial composition of Bermuda, according to the 2010 census, was estimated at 54 per cent black, 31 per cent white, 8 per cent multiracial. Most of the cases reported have been either from nursing homes or from repatriated residents on the flights from the US and Britain. I wonder if this has skewed our statistics.

We have been asked to shield those in our population who are at increased risk of death from Covid-19. We’ve been advised to be extra careful with our elderly, and for those with chronic diseases, but our two largest employers — the hospital and the Government — are responsible for most essential workers, who cannot work from home. And the majority of these workers are black. We can ask those who fit the highest risk profile to be extra vigilant with hand hygiene, face masks and social-distancing/self-isolation but if they are essential workers …

In the US, and in Bermuda, where we have a similar healthcare system, it seems easier to explain why this group may have worse outcomes. Blacks tend to be poorer, have less comprehensive health insurance, and have worse statistics for pretty much all conditions from stillbirths to cancer.

However, even in countries where there is a national health service with universal healthcare free at the point of service, black, Asian and minority ethnic groups still have disproportionately poor outcomes.

These people have a significantly increased risk of chronic metabolic disease. People of African heritage living in Britain are three times more likely than Caucasians to have type 2 diabetes.

A recent article in Nature states that “patients with type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome might have up to ten times greater risk of death when they contract Covid-19”. The author called for mandatory glucose and metabolic control of type 2 diabetes patients to improve outcomes.

The increased incidence of severe Covid-19 illness in black populations is not just about pre-existing disease. Social determinants of health must also be considered. Low socioeconomic status is a risk factor for mortality even before you add other factors. The communities where many black people reside are often in poor areas with higher population density and poor access to healthy foods.

In many majority-white countries such as the US — as well as in some minority-white countries like South Africa — people from BAME groups have more limited economic resources. In the US, black households in 2018 were two times as likely to be food-insecure as the national average. And this was before the Covid-19 pandemic.

In South Africa, Imraan Valodia, the development economist at the University of Witwatersrand, forecast that their lockdown would lead to a 45 per cent loss of income for the poorest 10 per cent of households, affecting informal workers without a safety net even more significantly.

Without savings, being out of work will have an impact on the ability of an individual or family to choose nutrient-rich fresh foods, which are essential for maintaining a healthy immune system. “For the upper classes who can continue to earn an income and who have wealth to fall back on, the lockdown is easy to manage,” Valodia says. “For the lower classes, this is not the case.”

Social-distancing is the most effective strategy to reduce Covid-19 transmission within a community. However, for individuals and families who live in close quarters, multiple generations living together with many sharing beds and bedrooms, six-foot distancing, let alone isolation of an individual who is unwell, is impossible.

Being able to maintain social-distancing while working from home or furloughed from work is a privilege and is simply not accessible for many in Bermuda. With elderly members of a family sharing living quarters with those who are out working, shielding of our vulnerable becomes more difficult.

Given the long history of unequal health outcomes, what we are seeing in other jurisdictions is not surprising. We have yet to see if our Covid-19 outcomes in Bermuda reflect the same. The pandemic did not create the inequities that we are seeing, but it is making us focus more on them.

When Covid-19 is under control and we have understood what interventions are most effective for prevention and treatment, these health disparities will still exist unless we work to change them.

My hope is that, through our experiences of this pandemic, legislation is introduced that targets social, political and economic structures that perpetuate disparities in healthcare and health outcomes so that, in the future, a person’s socioeconomic status will not be a risk factor for their untimely demise.

If you have questions about Covid-19 call the Bermuda Government Covid-19 helpline at 444-2498, available 9am to 9pm daily. If you are encountering a medical emergency, call 911

• Annabel Fountain, MD, is a Bermudian physician who is board-certified in endocrinology, diabetes and internal medicine. She is the owner and medical director of Fountain Medical Group. Dr Fountain is available for telemedicine appointments during the Covid-19 isolation recommendations. Please call your primary-care physician for a referral or 232-2027 to make an appointment

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Published May 12, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated May 12, 2020 at 7:48 am)

Socioeconomic impact of Covid-19 on healthcare

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