A dear friend of mine, who is a Latino immigrant, was denied entry to a New Jersey hospital. Twice. He was coughing, had a fever, and felt so weak to the point that he took days off from his job, which was very rare given his usual punctuality. A couple degrees below the temperature-cutoff for entry to the hospital, he was told by hospital staff to stay home and not come back again until he reached the threshold.
Amid the chaos, my friend was given many different pieces of advice, from avoiding hospital lest he contract the strange, novel virus, to seeking medical attention immediately because of his medical state. He tried to rest and fight off the ailment until he could not breathe properly. He traveled to the hospital the third time, alone, worrying that he would put his family at risk. My friend grabbed the attention of a nurse, who, like the others, had panic in her eyes, as doctors and nurses were seen behind the registration table scrambling about. He said, in his broken English:
“I can’t breathe.”
Put into the emergency room, he went through a series of tests that showed COVID-19 had progressed from inflammatory response to viral and bacterial pneumonia. He was put in isolation for two weeks and received medical treatments for the two different types of pneumonia. Fortunately, he recovered.
However, 20,000 New Jersey residents and nearly 366,000 Americans cannot say the same. COVID-19 has brought to light just how unprepared America was for this kind of battle, and the vulnerability of its people — family members, children, husbands, wives, elders, my friend — who are suffering. This suffering has not been equally distributed either. A disproportionate amount of those affected are, like my friend, people of color.
As members of Partners in Health Engage (PIHE), my fellow club members and I fight for health as a human right for everyone in the world. Our club banded together in 2019 to help advocate for the United States’ involvement in battling leading causes of deaths, including tuberculosis, AIDS, and malaria. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit our campus, students were able to witness first-hand the panic, distress, and horrible symptoms that this new disease caused, and to a greater scale, how it impacted the United States and the world.
We stand against the systemic health injustice that affects racial minorities in the United States in the light of the pandemic. Now, as widespread vaccine distribution appears to be on the horizon, that means doing our part to ensure that this distribution is equal across racial and ethnic groups, a fight all Princeton students can get involved in.
The transition into the new year brought with it good news on the vaccine front. Pfizer and BioNTech declared on Nov. 9 that a vaccine candidate was 90 percent effective in COVID-19 resistance, and Moderna filed for emergency use authorization for their vaccines to FDA on Nov. 30. The vaccine’s first distribution became available for front line workers in mid-December, and production is well underway to become more publicly accessible.
However, there is reason to be weary. Although the World Health Organization has declared that the attainment of the highest possible standard of health is a fundamental right of every human being, regardless of race, the United States falls short of this ideal. Racial minorities in the United States face a number of obstacles to health, one of which is inequitable access to health care. Inequitable access is composed of a variety of factors, including having sufficient insurance coverage and access to timely services and professional testing.
The coronavirus has shown the detrimental consequences of these inequities. On Nov. 30 the CDC reported that Black, Latinx, and Indigenous peoples were 1.4, 1.7, and 1.8 times more likely, respectively, to contract the virus than white Americans. Even more striking are the rates of hospitalization and death, as these minority groups were about four times more likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19, and approximately 2.7 times more likely to die due to COVID-19.
The overwhelming and disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on our minority populations in the United States indicates that these groups are in desperate need of the vaccine. As the prospect of a COVID-19 vaccine becomes increasingly available, what should be on our minds right now is equitable access to this vaccine and how we can ensure that racial and ethnic minorities are not denied their fundamental human right to health.
Indeed, previous experience has shown a clear correlation between the development of new medical technologies and unequal access to these technologies. In the early stages of the pandemic, unequal access to COVID-19 tests in communities of color was a major issue.
Given that the CDC reported only around 2.8 million people received the vaccine in 2020, much lower than 20 million vaccinations promised by U.S. officials, the slower deliverance of the vaccine can significantly delay the administration to racial minorities. Thus, it is imperative that these life-saving vaccines are distributed in an equitable manner so that all citizens of the United States can be protected from COVID-19.
As PIHE's Princeton Chapter, we are pushing Princeton University to join our cause and work towards a solution to this pressing issue.
Now, more than ever, our collective action as students is essential to ensuring the widespread and equitable access of the vaccine. While voting is an integral first step into getting involved in processes of legislation, taking our advocacy one step further is essential in ensuring a sustained and significant change on the federal and legislative levels.
PIHE is calling Princeton’s student body to contact your members of Congress today. Call or email your senators and representatives. Urge them to act now to pass a substantial COVID-19 relief response package to help those suffering the most by this pandemic, as well as to release plans for equitable distribution of the coronavirus vaccine. Your five minutes of action play an instrumental role in emphasizing the importance of equitable access to healthcare resources nationwide and truly does make a difference in passing wide scale legislation.
As the distribution of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines begins across the country, there is a new opportunity to ensure equitable healthcare access through the vaccine. Join us today in our action, to fight for a cause that takes one step forward in defining health as a basic human right for all.
Maryam Kamel ’23 and Megan Leinenbach ’23 are the current co-coordinators of Partners in Health Engage. They can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org for all club-related inquiries.
Aisha Chebbi ’24 is the advocacy-lead serving Partners in Health Engage. She can be reached at email@example.com with any advocacy-related inquiries.