Pandemic Is Too Small A Word

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Statistics have begun to emerge that show African American communities are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 infection and deaths.  Reporters, analysts and pundits across all networks have devoted time to these new statistics.  Medical experts contribute many, if not most, of these infections and deaths on underlying medical conditions.  Reporters, activists and some politicians point to decades of neglect and disparate policies as an explanation of the impact COVID-19 has on African Americans.

In my home state of Louisiana, reports show that more than 70% of the deaths attributed to COVID-19 are African Americans.  At the top of the list of underlying medical conditions is hypertension – just over 66%.  Diabetes came in a close second on the list at 43.5%. Notwithstanding all the other explanations, I want to focus on two things – the cost of drugs (especially since America treats symptoms rather than cures the problem) and our unique opportunity for a more comprehensive recovery following COVID-19.

One can’t help but look at the role pharmaceutical companies play in the cost of drugs – and, by extension, the cost of COVID-19. In March 2020, Sandoz Inc. of New Jersey agreed to pay a $195 million criminal penalty in the largest domestic antitrust investigation by the U. S. Department of Justice. In exchange for payment of the criminal penalty, the company has entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with DOJ that resolves the four felony charges the company faced in a conspiracy with at least three other pharmaceutical companies to rig bids, allocate customers and fix prices on benazepril HCTZ (a medication used to treat hypertension) and other generic drugs between 2013 and 2015.

Heritage Pharmaceuticals Inc., another New Jersey generic drug manufacturer, has also agreed to a deferred prosecution agreement with DOJ in this large-scale domestic generic drug investigation. Heritage agreed to pay more than $7 million dollars in criminal penalties and civil damages in connection with a conspiracy to rig bids, fix prices and allocate customers in the sale of hydralazine, used to treat hypertension, theophylline, used to treat respiratory problems such as asthma and glyburide, a generic drug used to treat diabetes.  Like the agreement between Sandoz and DOJ, criminal prosecution of Heritage is set aside for a period of three years.

Now, for some, this may seem like an excellent prosecution. In great measure it is. After all, in the case of Sandoz, $195 million is a lot of money. However, deferred prosecution means just that – prosecution (think trial) of the corporation and/or the lion’s share of the executive leadership team at Sandoz has been deferred (think set aside) in exchange for money. The deferment is for the next three years. Another way to view this case is in relation to the $500 million in sales that were directly impacted by this criminal and corrupt behavior. Is $305 million in ill-gotten gains worth the $195 million fine?

Health disparities have always existed for the African American community . . . diabetes, hypertension, the obesity, the asthma — those are the kinds of things that wind them up in the ICU and ultimately give him a higher death rate.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

I know this seems quite the conspiracy theory but bear with me. When the cost of generic drugs continues to rise, medical treatment becomes out of reach for the most disadvantaged in need of treatment. When a segment of our citizenry is historically and systematically isolated from what we call the American dream that disadvantage is multiplied exponentially in a pandemic. Medical experts actively involved in the COVID-19 response have consistently said that underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and asthma put patients at greater risk when they’re exposed to this coronavirus. Those same medical professionals are now saying that the population that is most adversely impacted by COVID -19 is African Americans suffering from hypertension and diabetes.

America has a responsibility to pay attention to the message COVID-19 has made clear – people are dying unnecessarily. Americans are dying because medical care is out of reach; because those we send to Washington, DC refuse to address health care for all Americans. The lack of meaningful legislation on health care exists by design. By design because of big pharma’s access to members of Congress.  Let’s face it, when big pharma is caught red-handed, they get a slap on the wrist.  Yes, a few hundred million dollars in criminal penalties and civil damages is a slap on the wrist when people are dying. If big pharma’s greed keeps medical treatment out of the reach of one American, it is one too many.

The country’s response to COVID-19 is very much a part of its recovery from COVID-19. Rushing to “open the economy” on May 1, 2020 ignores the scientific data before us. There is not a stimulus package out there that will begin to address what is clear – more testing is needed. We must continue to detect and respond to those pockets of COVID-19 cases well after we “hit the peak” all the models have predicted. America has an obligation to African Americans to at least begin work in earnest to address the underlying reasons behind hypertension, diabetes, obesity and other diseases that sentence so many to death when those medical conditions that can be addressed. It’s time to stop blaming the patient.

We need substantive responses to what the data being collected during this outbreak tells us.  America can’t continue to “claim” being proactive because everyone with a keyboard or microphone feigns concern about the numbers . . . or the people behind the numbers. The recovery that follows flattening the COVID-19 curve must be transformative. We must create a new normal.

Mitch Landrieu knows all too well what’s possible following tragedy.  He is a former Louisiana Lieutenant Governor. He also served as Mayor of New Orleans. Landrieu witnessed, firsthand, how African Americans suffered when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. Landrieu, now founder and president of E Pluribus Unum writes “Out of this crisis, my hope is that we — as a nation — decide that we’re going to redesign the systems that have led us to such disparate impact. Solutions must address the underlying inequities in our society. We can and must do better.”