The pandemic put the focus on racial health disparities. The protests can keep it there | Ray E. Landis

Black Lives Matter protesters march outside the Pennsylvania State Capitol on Sunday, 6/7/20 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

The first half of 2020 is proving to be one of the more tumultuous periods in recent American history. The worst pandemic in a century has been followed by a growing outcry about the systemic racism that still exists in many aspects of our society, sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

As protests have gripped cities across Pennsylvania, and the rest of the nation, these two society-altering events are beginning to overlap. The lasting image of the individuals who have marched in reaction to the Floyd’s death will be of people in masks.

And the effective end of the quarantine and isolation of many Americans has come as a result of the spontaneous anger his murder provoked.

Where do we go from here? As we contemplate that question, we must recognize although the faces we’ve seen on the streets are overwhelmingly young, the future impacts of the pandemic and our efforts to promote equality will have a dramatic effect on the older population.

As the number of COVID-19 cases slowly drops, there continues to be worry about another large-scale outbreak. It has been widely reported how devastating COVID-19 has been to older people, particularly those in long-term care facilities.

As more large crowds proliferate, a fear for many older people is those who were in crowds will come into contact with those most susceptible to the virus, whether in a family setting or through interactions in daily life. Social isolation is a consequence of this fear, and the harm of social isolation, though not as life-threatening as COVID-19, is a real concern for the elderly.

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At the same time, the protests surrounding George Floyd’s death have highlighted significant differences in the lives of Black Americans and non-Hispanic white Americans.

One big difference is Black Americans’ lives are shorter. Black Americans’ life expectancy at birth was almost 3.5 years lower than that of non-Hispanic white Americans in 2017 according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. Interestingly, however, life expectancy for those who reach the age of 65, the eligibility age for Medicare, is similar regardless of race.

In 2017, the state Department of Health studied this “longevity gap” in Pennsylvania.

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The agency’s report revealed between birth and age 65, Black death rates for all causes were higher than white death rates. It noted that Black Pennsylvanians “were more likely to report not being able to see a doctor because of cost and less likely to have a personal doctor or health care provider.”

Although Black Americans aged 65 and older live just as long, on average, as other Americans, the conditions in which they are living continue to show dramatic differences.

According to a U.S Congressional Research Service report, the poverty rate among older Black Americans is more than three times that of non-Hispanic white Americans. Particularly disheartening is the poverty rate of Black American women over the age of 65, which the U.S. Census Bureau estimated to be 21.5% in 2017.

Living in poverty negatively impacts older individuals in their daily lives, but it takes an even more troubling turn when someone needs long-term care services.

State Health Department studies show that those relying on Medicaid to pay for long-term care were four times as likely to receive these services in an institutional setting instead of at home. Thus, many older, poorer Black Pennsylvanians have been forced into nursing homes, not necessarily because of their health, but because of their economic status.

Which brings us back to COVID-19. With two-thirds of COVID-19 deaths in Pennsylvania occurring in long-term care facilities, the end result is older Black Americans have been disproportionally and dangerously impacted by the virus.

The marches we now see began as reaction to law enforcement mistreatment of Black Americans. But they also give us an opportunity to recognize other inequities in our society and how these disparities impact the lives of the people of our country and our commonwealth.

We need action to provide better health care for younger Black Americans to eliminate the longevity gap. We need action to alleviate poverty in the older Black American population through investment, community outreach and involvement.  And we need action to ensure that everyone, regardless of race or income, has access to quality long-term care services in the setting which make the most sense for them.

Only then can we begin to address the failings that currently exist and help to protect the vulnerable from the uncertainty of the future.

Opinion contributor Ray E. Landis writes about the issues that are important to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.