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07 Jul 2020

'An Issue of Belonging': Desert Healthcare District CEO Dr. Conrado Barzaga Says Racism Is a Public Health Crisis—as Shown by the Killing of Black Americans, COVID-19

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Desert Healthcare District CEO Dr. Conrado Barzaga: "When I moved to the desert, I found that the community is welcoming. I believe that every one should have that same feeling—not only that you’re welcome, but that you feel you belong in this community, that you’re part of it, and that you’re celebrated." Desert Healthcare District CEO Dr. Conrado Barzaga: "When I moved to the desert, I found that the community is welcoming. I believe that every one should have that same feeling—not only that you’re welcome, but that you feel you belong in this community, that you’re part of it, and that you’re celebrated."

On July 31, Dr. Conrado Barzaga will celebrate his one-year anniversary as the CEO of the Desert Healthcare District—and what a completely unforeseeable year it’s been.

His organization and the valley’s overall health-care infrastructure are being severely challenged by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic—as well as a related and much-longer-term issue that came to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness on May 25, when George Floyd was killed while restrained and lying on a street in Minneapolis police custody.

The baring of the long-simmering racial injustices in our society ignited the passion of Barzaga—so much so that on June 3, he issued a statement linking systemic racism to the subpar public-health outcomes of minority populations, both in the Coachella Valley and across the country.

Here is an excerpt: “As communities across the country take to the street and risk their lives to demand justice, the Desert Healthcare District and Foundation stands in solidarity with protesters and against racism, oppression and inequality in all of its forms, because we believe that inequities have consequences, both visible and invisible. … Some may say that our focus is health care. It is in this context that we recognize that the killing of Black Americans in this country is, and for too long, has been a public health crisis.

“It is a crisis rooted in the toxic traditions of systemic racism and white supremacy. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many more have died at the hands of the police and vigilantes—they should all be alive today. For this, we condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy. No one should have to fear for their lives because of the color of their skin, ethnic origin or identity. No parent should have to worry for their child’s safety and well-being when they venture outside of their home. No community should disproportionately bear the burden of social, economic and health challenges, and yet studies show that the overall health of people of color ranks lower than the overall health of whites.”

The Independent spoke with Barzaga recently and asked what motivated him to issue such an emphatic statement.

“I believe strongly that racism has public-health consequences, and that is the reason why we took that position,” Barzaga said. “For one thing, we see that Black Americans have higher mortality rates compared to other races due to a variety of issues. One is the murder rate. If you look at deaths from a public-health standpoint, there is such a thing as ‘untimely death.’ Black Americans die in an untimely (fashion) resulting from police brutality. That is a fact. But there are other public-health issues that affect that community, and those are the result of systemic racism. Black children are born at a lower weight, and they’re born prematurely (more frequently) as a result of racism. That inflicts a tremendous amount of stress and distress on Black women.”

Barzaga said institutions of policing, learning and health care all need to undergo an important change in perspective.

“I believe that we have been (following) a philosophy of diversity, equity and inclusion that’s causing many public entities and the majority of health-care foundations to address funding through an equity-based lens,” Barzaga said. “I believe that we need to take the conversation a little bit further. We need to move from diversity, equity and inclusion to have a conversation about ‘belonging’ in our communities. The people need to feel ownership and that this is their place—not that they’re being integrated into a community or that they ‘count.’ It’s not an issue of counting; it’s an issue of belonging.

“When I moved to the desert, I found that the community is welcoming. I believe that everyone should have that same feeling—not only that you’re welcome, but that you feel you belong in this community, that you’re part of it, and that you’re celebrated. Not because you’re white, or Black, or gay, or straight, or a man or a woman; I think it’s an issue of belonging. And, when we incorporate that lens of belonging, I think we will make our desert a much better place.

“Although, I do have to say that the desert is a wonderful place—but there is space for improvement.”

The DHCD is working on taking immediate action to address longstanding needs in local Black communities, such as the Desert Highlands Gateway neighborhood of Palm Springs. Barzaga and the DHCD Board of Directors have introduced a resolution formalizing a grant of more than $432,000 for minority health-care improvement, some of which will be earmarked to improve overall health-related conditions for those who live there.

“The district has been working for years with the Desert Highland Gateway community, and I think this will be a continuation of that response,” Barzaga said. “But this time, there will be a definitive action to bring health-care as a reality to that community. That’s what the community says they need; that’s what the community wants; that’s what they have expressed through their community health-needs assessment; and that’s what the leaders are saying. They have been raising the issue of a lack of affordable, nutritious food in that area. There’s no supermarket or any market at all that’s providing services to that community. So there are many issues that I believe require a collective response, not only from the DHCD, but from the city of Palm Springs as well. We are trying to mobilize other resources so that this can become a more comprehensive response to the needs of that community.

“The district is taking a leadership role. We have made a beautiful statement about solidarity, but I think we have to show actions, and not only words—and this might even become a template for how we address the health-care needs of other minority communities in the Coachella Valley.”

The DHCD board recently voted to allow all funding provided to the district to be spent in any region of the expanded “One Coachella Valley” district, whose boundaries now run from Palm Springs in the west to communities like Coachella, Indio and Mecca in the east. The district’s eastern boundary for years was Cook Street, but voters approved the expansion in November 2018. However, that expansion did not come with an expansion in revenues.

“The people have decided that the DHCD should cover the entire Coachella Valley, so, that’s what we’re doing,” Barzaga said. “We will continue to raise the issue of funding disparities between east and west. I think, ultimately, it may have to be the Legislature who will have to provide a solution for that valley-wide funding issue.”

Barzaga said the imminent danger presented by the pandemic has highlighted inequities in the Coachella Valley. By a wide margin, there have been more COVID-19 cases in Indio and Coachella than any other valley city.

“It is clear that we cannot neglect the health-care needs of the eastern Coachella Valley residents, and COVID-19 really put this front and center,” Barzaga said. “Very early on, we knew that we were going to have a much larger problem in the eastern valley as related to COVID-19. These are residents who depend on working day-to-day (outside of their homes). They don’t have the same ability, as many of us do, to work from home. They have to go into the fields, and they have to go and serve the people of Coachella Valley (via the service industry) while being in close proximity to one another. This population doesn’t have the same access to health care as residents in the western parts of the valley. That combination of less protection, less access to care and a more impacted (personal) immune system has been a formula for disaster, and we are seeing the results right now. We have made very heavy investments in our community clinics to make sure that we’re deploying resources for the serious needs of that community.

“There is a gap between the health outcomes in the east and west that we intend to close,” Barzaga said. “It will be years before we have a more-robust health-care infrastructure that can meet the needs and demands of everyone in Coachella Valley. That’s why we’re doing the Community Health Needs Assessment, which is a community-driven plan. Through that needs assessment, we want the community to tell us what they want as a health-improvement plan, and that health-improvement plan will be the road map for the next 10, 20 or 30 years for the district’s investments in the health-care structure of the valley, and to be responsive to the needs of the neediest in our communities.”

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