Before my father died visits to our family doctor were a regular thing. Because one of my brothers had asthma and allergies he was often sick and the doctor would even make house calls to check on him. I remember helping my mother to prepare our formica topped kitchen table to serve as an examination area. The doctor would come with his black bag and carefully check my brother’s temperature, ears, nasal passages and then listen for abnormalities in his lungs. I got to know our doctor rather well from those times and years later I would work as a summer receptionist in his clinic.
After my father died our visits to the doctor became almost nonexistent. Our only encounter with anything medical came when we spent what seemed like entire days at a Harris County clinic on Canal Street waiting to get our school inoculations for free. It never occurred to me back then that my mom could not afford to use the doctor’s office anymore unless someone had a major emergency or injury. I just assumed that we were a generally healthy bunch which may or may not have been true. It was only as an adult that I realized that my mother’s financial situation may have been the real reason that we only visited the doctor once in a blue moon. I doubt she had health insurance and I know that her income was ridiculously low, so she probably cut corners anyway possible, and that meant keeping medical expenses to a minimum.
When I was well into my fifties and one of my doctors began testing me for osteoporosis he wondered why my quite distinct scoliosis was never treated when I was a child. I suspect that the reason was that I never went to the doctor often enough for anyone to pick up on the fact that my spine was curving as I grew. My mother would not have known about such things and because I have had few other health problems in my life we were not alerted to treatments that might otherwise have straightened my back. Thus is the reality of those who have economic hardships.
I have been saddened to read reports that indicate that all across the United States it is the poor who are most likely to contract and suffer grave consequences from Covid-19. Due to the nature of their work which requires them to show up or lose pay they have been on the front lines of essential work duties often without proper protective face masks or gloves. In addition I suspect that, like my family, they do not often visit doctors for preventive care that might uncover health problems early enough to either fix or control them. They do not enjoy the luxuries of healthy diets either. Fresh fruit and vegetables tend to be more expensive than these individuals have the income to purchase. In totality their economic status limits what they can do to stay safe and healthy in normal conditions. That factor is only exacerbated by a worldwide pandemic.
Throughout history it has been the poor among us who have suffered most in difficult times. Right now the zip codes outlining the areas with the most Covid-19 cases in Houston are all in places that we know to be inhabited by our most economically vulnerable. We might argue that they in all probability have welfare, Medicaid, CHIPS and other programs that should be enough to help them but I know from my own mother that it is easy to slip through the cracks and become ineligible for such programs. On the day of her death my mom had a total income of $1100 a month which meant that she missed being able to get state or federal benefits by $100 a month. With her stunning abilities to budget with whatever she had and a bit of help from me and my brothers she was able to make it, but many people in a situation like hers do not have a source of additional assistance.
I almost cried when I looked at the zip codes where the most cases of Covid-19 are occurring because they represented the neighborhoods of so many of the students that I have taught in the past. I knew the parents of my pupils to be upstanding individuals who worked hard mostly in low paying jobs making just enough to get from one paycheck to the next. Medical care was a luxury for them just as it was for my mother. I was thrilled when a nurse at one of the schools where I worked spearheaded an effort to build a clinic on campus property where members of the community were able to come for vaccinations, tests, general health exams, and such. Donors and volunteers created a welcoming place where nobody had to feel belittled or concerned about how to pay. I have often wondered why there are not more such efforts being made all over town, and Covid-19 has made me feel the need for such homegrown medical centers more than ever.
If we were to take anything seriously starting with the health of our citizens should be right at the top of our priorities. The reality is that we will always have unfortunate souls among us whose incomes are too low to prioritize preventive care. They often can’t even afford to take the time off for such visits because every hour of their work days are devoted to being on the job. If they are not present, they do not get paid. We should find creative ways to fix that.
Covid-19 has shone a light on problems that the vast majority of us rarely experience. I suspect that I might never have noticed the inequities were it not for my own history as the child of a single parent whose circumstances caused her to lived on the edge of poverty for most of her life. It’s time we all became more aware and then like that nurse at my school lead meaningful drives to help fix the problems.