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How COVID-19 has Impacted Underserved Populations

Written by Vijay Jayamani l Originally published April 20, 2020

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused substantial economic, health, and social imbalances among various populations.

For example, more than 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits, public healthcare institutions are facing organization and equipment challenges, and the disruption of established behaviors and routines among individuals is becoming more evident.

Even though the Government and policymakers are making continuous measures to resolve these issues, this raises an important question: what about the underserved populations?

Underserved communities are disadvantaged populations with the lack of ability to access comprehensive healthcare, struggling with high poverty, and include members of minority and low education. These disadvantaged communities are the most affected by COVID-19 with their underlying health, financial, and social challenges.

With these mounting challenges from the pandemic, underserved populations are having difficulty coping with stress, anxiety, and fear.

The high cost of medical care, limited access to testing locations, and other health challenges are having a profound impact on underserved populations and are making them more susceptible to the virus. Even though the federal government has taken efforts to support these groups, such as providing $100 million toward community treatment centers, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), these underrepresented people who are uninsured “will likely face unique barriers accessing COVID-19 testing and treatment services.” With limited access to testing locations and states that have not expanded their Medicaid programs to vulnerable groups (28 million nonelderly uninsured people in the US), these populations are more vulnerable during this pandemic. This increase in vulnerability also adds to the fact that many of these underrepresented populations consist of existing health conditions including diabetes and asthma, which enhances the risk of contracting and spreading the disease. These health challenges are constantly causing stress among these individuals and increasing their chances of COVID-19.

Financial complications are also a major factor impacting underserved populations with the COVID-19 crisis. According to the Center for Disease and Control and Prevention, chronic diseases in poor and vulnerable communities are double than those of affluent areas, suggesting that poverty highlights an important challenge underrepresented populations are coping with during this harsh reality.

According to Mary Bassett, MD, MPH, director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, “there are people who have jobs where they don’t get paid if they stay home — and even risk losing their livelihood.” These workplace communities place stress among these vulnerable populations as many low-income service workers do not have access to sick paid leave and “tens of millions of Americans have no health insurance at all,” according to Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). This places them in a situation of continuing their work regardless of having a greater risk of both spreading and contracting the disease.

In addition to the inability to take paid sick leave and providing minimum income to their families, the KFF mentions that “an estimated 5.1 million adults who are at higher risk of getting a serious illness if they become infected with coronavirus are uninsured.” These uninsured workers with the burden of having no extra savings to accommodate for leave and risking payment are forced to continue working, and “could undermine efforts to control the spread of coronavirus,” according to the KFF. These financial complications are significant issues underserved populations are challenged with constantly during these unfavorable times.

Apart from health and financial issues, underserved populations are also challenged with significant social disparities. For example, according to the AAMC, more than 567,715 homeless people in the United States have difficulty in tight living conditions including shelters and overcrowded streets, where there is a greater risk of infection and limited social distance. Studies also indicate that there is a greater rate of respiratory infections from the underserved people compared to the general public, which essentially adds to the diminishing of the efforts to help control the spread.

Additionally, other social implications faced by vulnerable communities include citizenship status, limited health literacy, and mental stress. For example, limited health literacy from language barriers makes it difficult for them to attain information regarding prevention guidelines and testing information. Additionally, citizenship status among these underserved populations, which includes the “10 million unauthorized immigrants”, serves as a social barrier from attaining health assistance. These people fear the numerous regulations infused in their communities including deportation or the ineligibility of citizenship, and in result stay away from health facilities, according to KFF. These social challenges from COVID-19 are currently causing stress among these populations and are negatively affecting their everyday lives.

While there are countless concerns from the COVID-19 outbreak on impacting underserved populations and their lifestyle, there are also solutions that will better help these populations from health, financial, and social challenges.

For example, providing mental health services, withdrawing policies that would prevent unauthorized immigrants from accessing quality care, and educating hospitals to offer care for vulnerable areas with low medicare costs, will all help alleviate social disorders from underserved populations. Removing these social disorders will significantly help slow the spread of COVID-19 and positively affect their overall experiences during these harsh times.

Also, providing education about health disparities on the underserved population and offering customized mobile clinical services for these neglected communities will greatly help the various health concerns from the underrepresented populations. Bringing health awareness of these vulnerable populations will make them less prone to the disease and positively influence the health of the overall community.

Moreover, Congress is planning to address financial concerns in an emergency bill to alleviate pressure off from these underserved populations. According to the AAMC, “the bill provides paid sick leave for many but not all workers. It also enables free coronavirus testing, including for those without health insurance, and allocates significant funding to bolster food insecurity programs.” Additionally, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA or Act) is currently promoting paid sick leave options and providing financial relief to struggling populations. These financial aid notions will support many low-income workers in the underserved populations and stimulate financial testing abilities.

It is significant to consider the severe challenges that the underserved population is facing during these difficult times as well as help offer solutions in order to stimulate a healthy and safe community.

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