Gotham Gazette

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Community Health Groups Must Be Part of New York City’s COVID-19 Reckoning

local health clinics workers pamphlets

Community clinics must be reconsidered (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

For generations, health care has been vastly different for the haves and have nots, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased the divide that was already so apparent to communities of color in New York. 

Having symptoms of the virus myself in the early months I went to Lenox Hill hospital, farther from where I live because my local hospital was already filled with patients. Now, keep in mind, all private hospitals receive government funding, but their internal policies determine what it means to receive basic care. In my case all that meant was a COVID-19 test and a standard x-ray. Any additional testing I may need, including blood work and an electrocardiogram – standard even for basic check-ups – would have to be paid from my own wallet. 

Like most Afro-Latinos, I had been listening to the news of how the death toll continued to rise in my community of Upper Manhattan, and was afraid I would become one of those numbers. I was pained, too, seeing immigrant neighbors not receive the care they need or getting wrong information. But this is not surprising for those of us who have worked in the healthcare system. There have been consistent cuts to funding for health-focused community-based organizations (CBOs), which have an incredible history of advocating for newly-arrived immigrants who are still adapting to a different culture as well as other residents of low-income communities and communities of color.

But the cuts that occurred on multiple levels of government forced many of these organizations to close. If more health-based CBOs were open when the coronavirus upended our lives, the people who live in zip codes where the pandemic hit hardest would have had more options to receive the medical care they needed and deserved, contact tracing could have been implemented from the start, and the information these residents needed to survive would have been accessible. 

The CBOs that had their doors open in New York provided the best care they could, all while the demand for their services increased. So many of them, like the Commission on the Public's Health System, were able to jump-start volunteer efforts to help deliver meals and groceries, and to collaborate with houses of worship to provide remote services. They are still the go-to health care option for many. Most importantly, they have built relationships with their patients, which is their best chance for these men and women to get over the final hump of this health crisis. 

With the distribution of a covid vaccine underway, one-third of Latinos and fewer than half of Black people recently surveyed said they would not take the medicine. CBOs are the ones that can ease people’s fears so they listen to the advice of health professionals. But they need the financial support to effectively treat these communities. 

While larger health nonprofits have great people working for them, many still fall short of ensuring they can serve a diverse group of people. New Yorkers cannot afford to continue to have an antiquated safety net system that leaves out communities of color. 

Even now, advocates struggle to stop budget cuts to Medicaid and the NYC Health + Hospital System. In the midst of this national pandemic, every state has to exercise autonomy. But for years, public and private sectors have invested millions on studies relating to health disparities in New York City, showing that the more money you have the better healthcare you will receive. 

Before COVID-19, there were many studies showing a lack of services in key zip codes, but nothing was done to address it. Only now, when a vaccine is finally being distributed, are elected officials paying attention to the health disparities that have affected communities of color for decades, and money is being allocated to the tracing efforts necessary of infected New Yorkers who were already living below the poverty line. 

No one can say that we are “all in this together” when so many people are continuously robbed of quality health care. When the coronavirus has been contained and we can finally get back to living a semblance of the lives we remember, changes to the way health care organizations are funded needs to be changed to ensure all communities have access to the care they need. Only then will we be able to ensure all New Yorkers can lead a healthy life and truly be ready for the next pandemic.

Miosotis Munoz is a proven community advocate and non-profit leader who has worked in the healthcare and education sectors, and for several elected officials in New York City for almost three decades. She resides in Upper Manhattan.

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