By Fred Kiga
Northwest Asian Weekly
We all hope that our communities, state, and nation will enjoy a resurgence of health, optimism, and healing in 2021.
One thing that was true before and has continued through the pandemic is that health problems tend to hit communities of color harder than the overall population. The coronavirus has affected us all, whether we contracted it or are dealing with economic, societal, and other impacts. But communities of color have seen higher infection, hospitalization, and death rates from COVID-19.
In part, these communities tend to live in multigenerational households, which fosters close family ties, but also make social distancing difficult. Many in these communities are also hardworking, essential workers and often do not have access to adequate health care.
Asian Americans may not be receiving culturally appropriate information to understand how to protect against the virus and there has been a backlash against the community that is hurting businesses and increasing unemployment, further contributing to inequities.
Oral health is another area of significant health disparity. Surveys of Washington residents confirm that oral health problems are more common among people of color and those with lower incomes.
Oral health is essential for overall health, and is linked to heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory illnesses—all major risk factors for COVID-19. Oral disease is also linked to stroke and pregnancy complications.
Oral health can affect our overall health and lives at every age. For kids, a healthy mouth is key for communication, education, a good night’s sleep, and being able to eat healthy foods. For adults, it’s important for employment and success. And for the elderly, it is essential for good nutrition, and being able to stay active, independent, and healthy.
A key part of ensuring access to oral health care for communities of color and low-income adults in this state is the Apple Health (Medicaid) Dental program. But in response to the coronavirus economic downturn, state agencies had to identify potential places to make cuts, including the dental program for adults. Fortunately, Gov. Inslee preserves funding for Apple Health adult dental in his budget, and now it is up to the Legislature to do the same. More than one million low-income adults, including a disproportionately high percentage in communities of color, rely on Apple Health dental health coverage.
People need preventive care and treatment to maintain their oral health and keep dental problems from becoming much more painful, debilitating, and costly to treat. Apple Health enables many people to access these services.
Yes, taking personal responsibility for one’s oral health is also important. But consider the fact that major purveyors of sugar-laden products, such as sports drinks and soda pop, target heavy advertising toward communities of color, which are more vulnerable to COVID and more likely to have oral health problems.
According to studies nationally, more than $1 billion is spent annually advertising sugary beverages, much of it directed at Black and brown people. This marketing blitz has a major impact on oral and overall health. This is why cities across the country are taxing sugary drinks, as Seattle has done, and using the money to reduce health and social inequities.
Yes, many of us need to be smarter about our food and beverage choices. We all need to do better with healthy habits, including brushing and flossing. But, there also must be policies and programs in place to address systemic inequities. We need policies that reduce consumption of sugary beverages. Plus, we must ensure that everyone has access to dental care.
We should not eliminate essential safety net programs such as dental care that people need to stay healthy, especially during a pandemic. We all need to encourage policymakers to continue to support vital public health programs such as Apple Health dental. Visit OralHealthWatch.com for help contacting your legislators.
With compassion, common sense, humanity, and a commitment to fairness and equal opportunity, we must strive toward health equity for all.
Fred Kiga is board chair of Arcora Foundation and was previously chief of staff for former Gov. Gary Locke.