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Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic The Need for a Structurally Competent Health Care System

Published time: 04 June 2020

Authors: Jonathan M. Metzl,  Aletha Maybank, Fernando De Maio

Keywords: health care system, pandemic, covid-19, morbidity, mortality.


The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has exposed the consequences of inequality in the US. Even though all US residents are likely equally susceptible to infection with SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2), the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, the resulting illness and the distribution of deaths reinforces systems of discriminatory housing, education, employment, earnings, health care, and criminal justice. The patterns of COVID-19 illuminate centuries of support systems that the US did not build and investments it did not make.

Each stage of the pandemic, from containment, to mitigation, to reopening, highlights the extent to which certain populations were rendered vulnerable long before the virus arrived. As a result, marginalized, minoritized, and communities of low wealth have been at highest risk, with disproportionate death rates among African American, Latinx, and Native American populations across the US.

Sociodemographic differences in COVID-19 morbidity and mortality highlight an unavoidable reality facing the US health care system as it strives to fulfill its mission to promote health and well-being, and to treat disease. At its core, the practice of medicine is based on individual-level interactions among clinicians, patients, and families. Yet the pandemic highlights the extent to which illness for many people results from larger structures, systems, and economies.

Understanding how these processes operate requires not only acknowledging the social determinants of health, but more important, moving farther upstream to address the structural drivers that generate poverty and other aspects of social disadvantage.

Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic



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