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A Nurse's Perspective on Healing Racial Disparities

Dr. Catherine Alicia Georges discusses health disparities and racial injustice

Three women with masks talk in a park

ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images/AARP

On today’s show, Dr. Catherine Alicia Georges discusses health disparities and racial injustice -- how they're related, why African Americans are disproportionately affected and how communities can help.

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Mike Ellison:

With the nation talking about racial injustice and coronavirus cases continuing to climb, we wondered what these issues might have in common.

Dr. Alicia Georges:

There's no way you can extricate what's been going on and the outcomes of the disease from the basic racism and social injustice and inequities that have existed in this country for so many years.

Mike Ellison:

In fact, research shows African Americans account for 24% of COVID-19 deaths where race is known, but they are only 13% of the US population.

Today our guest discusses some reasons why these racial disparities exist, and what resources are out there to help you take action -- or cope.

That’s coming up next.

Hi, I’m Mike Ellison with an AARP Take on Today.

First, it was coronavirus.  Then, it was the killing of George Floyd. It may feel like they are separate. Or that the nation has moved from one grim reality to the next. But our guest says they are connected. She also notes that coronavirus is still very much with us, so even if we aren’t thinking about it as much, it’s ever-present and it is still costing American lives.

To help us navigate these issues, we speak to Dr. Catherine Alicia Georges, registered nurse and national volunteer president at AARP. She’s also volunteer President of the National Black Nurses Foundation and serves on the board of the Black Women’s Health Study, R.A.I.N. Inc.

With all that's going on it can be easy to forget to just check in with people and just listen. So let me just start by asking, how are you doing?

Dr. Alicia Georges:

The thing that has gotten to me in all of this is the loss of three of my graduates, three of my students, African-American, who died because of the COVID. They were frontliners. One who had worked in a nursing home and two others that worked in our really critical areas where the most vulnerable in the Bronx were hospitalized. That knocked me back.

Mike Ellison:

I'm really sorry for your loss. I guess it's been said that not just African-Americans, but the entire country, and the world for that matter, are essentially facing two pandemics at the same time, right? One is continued injustice based on so-called race, and the coronavirus. How do you think these two relate to each other?

Dr. Alicia Georges:

Well, one, I'm not surprised. That's been the chronicity of the problem, is the issue. The chronicity of racism is the issue, and now coupled with the social determinates of hell, those that have not been met to make people live healthier lives have now collided. They're head-on, and with that comes all that we're seeing. The increased deaths of African-Americans. New York City itself, twice as many folks of African descent dying, hospitalized. Louisiana. The number is two and a half times what their population reflects. The same in Illinois and Chicago. Those are the kinds of things that we're seeing that clearly identify, and I don't know who's surprised.

I, Catherine Alicia Georges, is not surprised. I'm not surprised, because as a healthcare professional I have seen the ravages of poor housing, poor education, lack of access to quality care. I've seen it. This now epidemic has only heightened -- heightened -- this for America, and that's why where I'm saying they're head-on. But there's no way you can extricate what's been going on and the outcomes of the disease from the basic racism and social injustice and inequities that have existed in this country for so many years.

Mike Ellison:

I love the term you use, the chronicity of this problem. You mentioned some of the factors that contribute to African-Americans being disproportionately affected by the Coronavirus. Can you go back to that? I know you went through them, but we're hearing things about, "Well, black folks have a lot of preexisting health conditions like obesity and diabetes and so on and so forth." Are these the real factors? Are there other factors in addition to that? Can you speak to that a bit?

Dr. Alicia Georges:

What it is is race is not the issue. Let's just get that out of the way. It is all the things that surround and how people are treated because of race and ethnicity. We say all the time, "How can I feed a family if I live in a community where there are no decent places to shop for food, and where it's cheaper for me and my kids, for us to buy the cheap stuff?" All that stuff that's loaded with sodium, high in sugar? You're in an apartment building, you can't get out. There's no places for your kids to play, you don't want them outside. What's going to happen? You find another way to entertain them. There's the afterschool programs, in many parts of our country have been nonexistent.

There aren't the community resources that exist for youngsters and other people. Nobody ever talked to people about, "You know, you don't have to go to a gym, you just walk up and down the stairs in your building a few times a day if it's safe." You don't have to go to a gym. You can walk around the community a couple times. We haven't made the effort to really reach out to communities that have been so vulnerable over the years, and the vulnerability is continuous. It's continuous. We see when things get tough, social programs are decreased. They're the least funded. When you look at schools in this country where is most of the money going? It's not in the urban centers for schools. They're the least funded.

Mike Ellison:

You have an amazing legacy and a uniquely fascinating cross section of volunteerism, nursing, medical and executive leadership experience. It is very apparent that you're comfortable in a lot of spaces. How has this served you, and how has this helped you serve others?

Dr. Alicia Georges:

Well, as I told a group of people the other day, I was born and raised in the United States Virgin Islands, the beautiful Island of Saint Thomas, and I came from a family of very strong women and a family constellation that was so strong. I had a good education, and also I was told, "There is nothing that you can't do if you truly want to do it." That was instilled in all of us from the time we were little. So I come from a family of achievers. I keep telling folks I'm more than likely the least achieved of everybody, but of high achievers. But one of the things I learned from my parents, that your life is not just for you and about, "Me, me, me", it's about, "We, we, we", and you have to give back. My father was a Boy Scout leader. My mother ran a girls club. We provided. We did service. That was part of our whole makeup. So I didn't see any reason why I shouldn't do it. We all did it.

Dr. Alicia Georges:

So it was just a natural progression for me to when I went to college to be in the student council, to raise hell when I thought injustice was being done. So I always I felt I had to give back. This was not about me. I could go and not have to be bothered and live quite a different life than I've lived the last number of years, but I enjoy it. You've got to help somebody. We don't live by ourselves, we're connected to other humans, and nursing as my career is human caring. So I saw all the things that I could bring to the table to make things better for patients and communities. So that was getting involved in policy on a community board level, was being a president of a professional nursing organization, being president of an international organization, and all of those things, because it all spoke to the same thing, human caring and what we need to be doing for them.

Mike Ellison:

Only until the pandemic virus does it seem that we really started to value people that are now considered essential, frontline workers. There seems to be some renewed respect for nurses especially. Do you think that will help shift our healthcare system in the right direction, and do you think it's sustainable?

Dr. Alicia Georges:

Well, for 17 straight years, almost 18 now, nurses have been voted as the most trusted profession in the country. So people trust us. They trust that we're going to be there when they come into this life and we're going to be there when they leave it. That's who was there when families couldn't be there when patients died during this COVID. That's who was there with them. They were the ones in those rooms with their face shields on, gloved up in their N95 mask. Some of them were graduates of my program, and some of them are my current registered nurse students and graduate students. They were there. They were there with those patients, because families couldn't go in.

I think that they the world appreciates what we do, and the world understands that we were there 24/7, that we were there constantly, that we were there in the ICUs, were there in the ERs. We were the ones going out and still seeing what was happening to people in their homes. We were the ones communicating, using your own telephone and using FaceTime and iPads so that people could communicate with their families. I did things, like I Zoomed with my graduates and let them cry because they had bathed so many bodies in one shift.

They were there. They were there. People appreciated. Families appreciated. Those of us who know the profession have appreciated it. We now have to make sure that we are in those places where we can change policy. We must be in the boardrooms of these hospitals. Nurses need to be on these boards, and telling people what kinds of service need to be. We shouldn't be standing on the sidelines. So I think we're ready. I'm hoping.

Mike Ellison:

It does not appear that we hear the professional perspective of the nurse.

Dr. Alicia Georges:

I'm going to tell you that I have to say, "Salud", to AARP and the Bulletin that did that piece on the nurses at the frontlines in this COVID. That was one of the best pieces, and I've heard so much from nurses and their families who saw that. AARP appreciates, understands, supports and facilitates nurses and nurses practicing to the extent of their profession and their practice pact. This is the kinds of things that they campaign for action at AARP, our center to champion nursing in America. That's what we're doing. I think we've now got a bigger impetus, because, sorry it had to be the COVID and the pandemic. We've always talked about social injustices in nursing. Nursing has never shied away from it. The problem is our voices were not heard as loudly as I think we should've been heard, but now I think people are going to listen to us. I just want America to reset it's moral compass, reset what they think what America needs to know we must do morally and ethically and legally. We cannot deny people their rights, their rights to all the things we say.

Mike Ellison:

A lot of people have said that the impact of social distancing, social isolation, has hurt people as much in some cases if not more than the virus itself. People are feeling the impact of prolonged social isolation. On top of that now we have the events surrounding George Floyd. I just wonder how all of this is affecting our collective or individual mental health. You have any thoughts about that?

Dr. Alicia Georges:

Oh yeah, very clearly it's going to. We knew before the COVID that we had a group of people in this country who were socially isolated. They were alone. They had no connect to people, and we saw them in our emergency rooms, because they weren't eating, they were falling. They were lonely, and they needed to have a connect to a human being. They needed to have a connection to somebody. One of the things that we need to and we can do, and some communities have done it, AARP has done it with its Community Connections through it's volunteers. I belong to a group where my students and then people at our adult health centers called people every day just to be sure they were okay, because they had no human contact.

Even their foods were left at the door, remember? We had contactless interactions, so food was left at their doors. They didn't get to see the people who did their Meals On Wheels for them, because they couldn't come into their homes. So calling people up, having open lines where people can call and just say, "Oh, I'm feeling so lonely, I just need to talk." I think the Zoom folks have worked for some of the younger generation. There have been more Zoom parties than I've ever heard of in my life. I think everybody finds an excuse to have one.

That's wonderful. That's fabulous. That's fabulous, because they're keeping in-touch. My concern is for the prolonged isolation of particularly those who have been before so isolated. We've got to make sure that we continue the kinds of things that we've been innovative in doing now, that we continue to call people, we continue to understand the criticality of relationships. There's no going back to what we used to be or used to do, it's a forward movement. A new norm.

Mike Ellison:

Dr. Georges, any final remarks?

Dr. Alicia Georges:

I think we have to begin to, as I said when we started, about confronting the issues, but then we've got to step out from behind the platitudes and invite people to the table, invite people to our circle, invite people to see and talk about those issues. I like to call them healing, because not everybody's going to come willingly. We've seen that in those places in universities and corporate America where people are forced to go to workshops, et cetera. But if we take that as a basis and then begin to step out and do something and do spread, we've got to have spread, that's what we need.

 

Outro

 

We thank Dr. Alicia Georges for speaking with us, and for all the good work she continues to do in our communities.

We encourage everyone to visit www.aarp.org/blackcommunities and www.aarp.org/coronavirus to learn more about these issues. If you have a story to share, please comment on our podcast page at www.AARP.org/podcasts or email us at newspodcast@aarp.org

 

Thanks to our news team.

Producers Colby Nelson and Danny Alarcon

Production Assistant Brigid Lowney

Engineer Julio Gonzalez

Executive Producer Jason Young

And, of course, my co-hosts Bob Edwards and Wilma Consul.

For An AARP Take on Today, I’m Mike Ellison.

Thanks for listening.

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