• Robert Sun

Asian Pacific Islander American leaders unite to discuss efforts on dealing with health inequity

The COVID-19 pandemic poses immense challenges to our community, affecting all ethnic groups, and almost all aspects of our lives. One challenge the community continues to face is the large health inequity that impedes their livelihood during this pandemic. To better understand this issue, the FAPAC NIH Chapter held an online webinar on July 31, titled “United to Fight Health Inequity During the Pandemic: What Can the AAPI Community Do?” Hosted by Dr. Xinzhi Zhang, president of the FAPAC NIH Chapter, this webinar explored opportunities for the AAPI community to work with various communities to tackle this issue. With over 300 attendees, the webinar gave valuable insight and information on how various communities can collaborate to resolve the multitude of problems presented by the pandemic.

The webinar began with an opening remark from Maryland’s First Lady Yumi Hogan. In her remark, she commended the generosity and contributions of AAPIs, which has been critical to Maryland’s progression in recovery and relief in this pandemic. Working with public health officials, AAPI’s have managed to secure critical resources, and donate more than half a million of PPE equipment to health organizations in need.

Dr. Monica Hooper, Deputy Director for the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities also gave some remarks, which included various statistics that displayed the racial discrimination and mortality rates of various ethnic groups associated with the pandemic. Using this data, Dr. Hooper advocates for the unity and equity of all racial groups as a solution to the existing problems aforementioned. “I encourage you to add an equity lens to your work. Ask yourself whether resources exist for all people to reach the goal or intended outcome of your professional or scientific efforts.”

Following the opening remarks, the webinar spent some time to showcase videos of different AAPI organizations, and their efforts to help cope with the ongoing effects of the pandemic. Their efforts included a wide range of initiatives from educating others, to mask and food donations for front line workers. The audience felt inspired by these efforts to become proactive in taking part to help resolve the variety of problems that this pandemic brings.

Afterward, the webinar transitioned to a panel discussion, comprising various health experts and legislators. The webinar featured 3 main panelists: Dr. Yvonne Madox, former NIH Acting Deputy Director, Maryland State Delegate Lily Qi, and Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. The panel discussion primarily focused on gathering personal reflections and thoughts from these esteemed panelists, whose experience in legislative or public health service can serve as wisdom to the public on how to resolve the health inequity posed by the pandemic.

The panel discussion also included Dr. Howard Koh, a professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and also the keynote speaker of the webinar and moderator of the panel discussion. In his speech, Dr. Koh commemorates all the hard work the AAPI community has currently done in public health service, especially during a time of crisis. Additionally, he expresses his gratitude for FAPAC’s initiative to gather the community together and be a role model in public health service. “We [as individuals] in public health have to stay broad, interdisciplinary, open to new ideas, open to collaboration... that is what today’s event is all about,” said Dr. Koh. “So I feel so grateful that [FAPAC] has stepped forward for an event like this, and to make a difference in a time like this when the American people need your leadership, commitment, and your services.”

The first topic the panel discussion was the importance of resolving health inequity together during this pandemic. Opening the conversation, Dr. Maddox expressed that during her lifetime as a federal public service worker, her work frequently centered around dealing with health inequity in various forms. However, despite dedicating almost 30 years of her life to examine the grave health disparities that have a disproportionate impact on minority groups, this pandemic has taught her how critical it is for all racial groups to work together to fix these health disparities the pandemic has caused. “Most people would have thought that a virus so contagious would have...impacted [everyone] on equal terms. But just as we see health disparities associated with chronic diseases, we still see these grave disparities from COVID-19,” says Dr. Maddox. “And in order to arrest these grave difficulties and scourge on our public, we are going to have to work together.”

Delegate Qi emphasized how even the slight disparities in health, transit, or housing can have a drastic effect on the life expectancy of an individual. Representing Montgomery County, Delegate Qi explains how comparing her county to Baltimore for example can result in a difference of a life expectancy up to an entire generation. “That [noticeable difference in life expectancy] should be unacceptable to anyone,” exclaimed Delegate Qi. “I’m very glad that we are focusing on this [health inequity] issue and focusing on how we can work together.”

Concurring with statements that Delegate Qi exclaimed, Dr. Wen elaborated on these underlying disparities, and provided concrete solutions to how health inequity should be addressed., Dr. Wen asserts that there is plenty of room for everyone to improve themselves, and create a societal system that is equitable for all. Examples include improvements with data collection on COVID-19 testing, and reforming social policies during this pandemic, so that minority groups are not negatively impacted. However, Dr. Wen mentioned how all these changes need to be made together as a unified society. “The virus doesn’t discriminate, but we do,” said Dr. Wen. “We can all do so much better -- all of us -- that we can really fight for health and social justice.”

The second topic of the panel discussion was the ongoing issue with the lack of data collected during this pandemic and how it specifically affects the AAPI community. Expressed by Delegate Qi, Maryland is fortunate to be one of the first states that began collecting racial data about the pandemic as soon as it started. However, the data on AAPI’s in this pandemic is still quite incoherent and incomplete. Certain issues continue to persist, which reduce the accuracy of the data. Some examples of these issues are that many still have apathy to take the initiative to get tested for COVID-19, or have a distrust in the system.

Dr. Maddox mentioned a potential reason for the lack of data collected that displays how the pandemic impacts specific groups: the great digital divide faced during this era, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. She voices her concern on how many of our citizens do not have access to the internet and key resources, which weakens the importance of health literacy. As a result, it becomes difficult to make certain data accessible to the community and being able to collect data, especially on how the pandemic impacts underprivileged groups.

Dr. Wen suggests that the issues with data collection during this pandemic can be improved with greater outreach. Furthermore, she mentions how current methods for data collection need to be reworked. She points out that data on AAPI’s is not collected the same in all states, “The way that the data [about AAPI’s affected by the pandemic] are collected are different, in some states AAPI’s are in a group, but in others they are disaggregated.” (ad her suggestions on data here)

Finally, the panel discussion transitioned into a discussion that reflected on personal experiences the panelists encountered during this pandemic themselves, as well as their opinions on top priorities the nation will be focusing on tackling about the pandemic in the near future.

Dr. Maddox shared how this pandemic has changed her philosophy on how to work with the community at large. “This pandemic has told me that we are in this together,” she remarked. “If we don’t work across with other racial groups we’re not going to solve issues with this pandemic or other health disparities.” Dr. Maddox and her foundation have started to focus and reach out to the community at all levels. She has decided to become more committed to public health from a public policy perspective.

Delegate Qi mentioned that she has been working with legislative leaders to urge the Maryland governor to adopt antibody testing and improve its turnaround time. After seeing the lack of a coordinated national response to the pandemic, she is enthusiastic to align her policymaking to match standards from public health leaders, as she looks forward to working with her colleagues to serve her constituents and the underprivileged in the most effective way.

Dr. Wen shared her unique experiences of actually giving birth and experiencing motherhood during this unprecedented pandemic. From such an unexpected challenge to face, she found that this pandemic has taught her to give each other a lot of grace during this time, because everyone is having a share of their humanity challenged by this pandemic.

After the guided discussion, the webinar provided time for the panelists to receive questions from the audience, and share final remarks about how to move forward as a community after listening to this webinar. During this time, the panelists reiterated key points mentioned throughout the discussion, specifically tying into the theme of planning for the future.

The panelists stressed that there must be a robust national strategy implemented to suppress this pandemic. Dr. Koh says this pandemic is only increasing as an obstacle to minority groups, exacerbated by the resurgence of the influenza season in the fall. With consideration to the ongoing development of a COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Wen says a national strategy is especially important during this time. “When you don’t have a national plan, then you’re leaving the most vulnerable out. Let’s think about how the vaccine is going to be distributed [if there was no national plan]; it’s always going to be the ones with the money and resources that can access the vaccine first, not the most vulnerable.”

Additionally, in regard to efforts to resolve our plaguing health inequity in society, the panelists reinforced that everyone must disavow racism and work together to bolster our public health infrastructure. “Unity is the way that we will succeed, and when one community rises, others will rise together,” says Dr. Maddox. She is optimistic that communities are moving forward in this direction, which will be significant as the nation enters the immunization phase of the pandemic.

Sometimes in the face of adversity and tumult, many forget the importance of public health and take the role of public health in society for granted. Dr. Wen explained how we typically see public health as an invisible figure, citing an analogy to how food poisoning is expressed in the media. “All the prevention work done to inspect restaurants to prevent food poisoning, you don’t really hear anything about that. Instead, you see the face of someone who has gotten food poisoning.” Consequently, Dr. Wen asserts that we need to reinvest in public health, which has been seemingly ignored for decades. “Let’s not wait for the next pandemic to hit us, let’s actually bolster our public health infrastructure so we can respond to this pandemic, so that we are ready for others, and so that we recognize how much that a public-health safety net influences everything else too. If we do it right, we have the opportunity to really address equity in a meaningful way, through the lens of public health,” she expressed eloquently.

It is clear that despite the progress that is being made within public health and policymaking aimed to resolve this pandemic, there is still a long way to go. This pandemic has created a great division among not just public health, but technology, communication, and communities as well. However, instead of division, everyone must unite together, to focus on accomplishing a shared goal: fighting and resolving the challenges of this pandemic. Quoted by Dr. Koh, “We may all have come on different ships, but we are in the same boat now.” - Martin Luther King Jr. This quote could not be more relevant than the current pandemic we face today. Understanding the accountability and responsibilities our communities have in this pandemic will be the cornerstone to the nation’s resilience, and bring us one step closer to societal justice.

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