Barbados and other Caribbean countries are being urged to come up with solutions to adequately tackle issues that predominantly affect blacks during a health pandemic.
In addition, Dr Kenneth Connell, Clinical Pharmacology lecturer at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Cave Hill Campus, said academics will need to play a greater role and residents should hold governments more accountable.
He made the comments as he joined a panel of experts to discuss the topic Race, Class and COVID-19, at the UWI Vice-Chancellor’s forum on Monday.
Pointing to the need for the black community to support each other more, the panellists agreed that healthcare should not depend on race or class.
Focusing his presentation on the health issues that primarily affect the black community, Connell said this group “bears an unusual burden” that seems to be magnified by the current health crisis.
In addition, he said, this ethnic group has varying levels of mistrust in the health system and historically, depended on traditional forms of treatments. He said the black community was plagued by a range of socioeconomic issues including lack of access to affordable healthcare and unemployment, which put them at even greater risk of dying from some viruses and illnesses.
“What I find most interesting is that there is institutional implicit bias, even when patients do make it to the healthcare system and seek care, there is a bias against them . . . There is a significant institutional bias, and I will challenge anyone who postulates there isn’t in our Caribbean region,” he said.
The doctor admitted: “I constantly have to check on myself in interacting with certain classes of patients to ensure my implicit bias does not influence their care.”
Connell said the region was facing several gaps including a lack of knowledge about the virus among healthcare workers and individuals, inadequate policies to protect people most at risk, and a lack of necessary policing of the policies that were in place.
He also pointed to “hidden societal discrimination” as an issue that needed to addressed, adding that behavioural change was needed at the levels of the health system, patients and society, to ensure everyone was dealt with fairly “irrespective of race colour or creed”.
Calling on the authorities to do more to help those most at risk, Connell said COVID-19 now offered the region “an urgent opportunity to implement change” and not just to have a discourse about it.
“It cannot be a business-as-usual type of response. We need to aggressively address the individual barriers including race,” he suggested, adding that simple strategic messaging could go a long way.
“Now when the political landscape is looking all at COVID-19 because they are worried about mortality and the economic burden, is the time for us academics and health professionals to agitate for an immediate call to action and not just for more talk [but] for more policies and implementing change.
“How do we hold our governments accountable to this? For instance, in a post-COVID-19 environment one would hope that the Caribbean governments will be able to clearly articulate how they plan to address discrimination in healthcare, whether it is class or race because COVID-19 would have unearthed this or magnified it.”
Urging leaders to learn from the current health pandemic, Dr Connell said there was need for measures to be put in place to help protect future generations, including addressing the issue of childhood obesity.
Further calling on academics to provide assistance, Connell said this could be done through more research and sharing of findings and encouraging students to be more inquisitive.
“Clear products need to now come out of this. One might be a position paper which could come from the University of the West Indies or a group of academics where we construct a paper that might assist in shaping the healthcare system post-COVID-19,” suggested Connell.
“One thing is certain is that post COVID-19 our healthcare systems will not be the same. We will employ different modalities for managing patients. We now have to ensure that whatever changes occur, take into account those race and class issues,” he recommended.
During the discussion panellists also recommended that greater attention be given to food security in the region.