“Louisiana Is My Favorite State, and My Family Is My Favorite Family”
Dereck Rovaris, Vice Provost for Diversity at LSU and a member of Governor John Bel Edwards’ new Louisiana COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, talks about the importance of addressing health disparities across the state beyond the scope of the pandemic and how the passion he has for this work stems from a very personal point of view.
The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare many of the health disparities in our nation,
and particularly in Louisiana. Orleans Parish has the highest per-capita death rate
of all US counties and while African Americans make up about a third of all residents
in the state, they account for more than half of the deaths from COVID-19. This was
one of the main reasons Governor John Bel Edwards appointed a Health Equity Task Force
last month, to find solutions and help guide policy. On that task force is LSU Vice
Provost for Diversity Dereck Rovaris, along with a long list of other LSU experts. He serves on the Community Outreach and Engagement sub-committee,
where communication and education are a big component.
Have you had time to begin your work on the taskforce yet?
Our whole committee has met twice, and we’re meeting as sub-committees this week.
In terms of the toll this pandemic is taking on Louisiana and especially on African Americans, what numbers stand out to you? What have you noticed?
I’ve got a really good friend in New Orleans who told me she’s got 29 people she knows who’ve died from COVID-19, and that got me thinking, how many do I know? While I don’t want to count, it’s well into the teens, and I don’t have to think hard about it. I’ve got a cousin; I’ve got a friend who also lost her mom and her aunt; another friend who lost her father—it’s real.
I also worry about the numbers we don’t see. There are those, especially in the Latinx community, who will not report, will not see a doctor, will not get tested. And this goes beyond COVID-19. This is not just, ‘What’s going on with the coronavirus?’ This goes way beyond it. Thankfully, most of our committee members are thinking the same way.
Is health disparities a topic you’ve worked on before?
I would even say I’ve lived it. I spent the first 25 years of my career working at Xavier University in New Orleans and then I went over to the LSU Health Sciences Center and worked on it from a medical angle. I was the associate vice chancellor for multicultural affairs and academic affairs and worked with all six schools, and the School of Public Health was looking at health disparities; the medical school was looking at it; nursing was looking at it—we had a lot of people over there working on it. It’s been a constant concern and I’ve always tried to make sure people pay attention to it.
Are we thinking about health disparities the right way?
The answer is no. We are not. There are ways we can address these inadequacies if we simply use the ‘mama principle,’ as I call it. This is not science, but you’ve probably lived long enough in Louisiana to know—how would you treat your mother? Most of us want to take care of our mamas to the best of our abilities. If mama has diabetes and bad circulation, is taking her leg off the best option? Might not be for mom. So, what else can we do? Also, we’re not worrying about cost; we’re simply treating her and sorting the other stuff out later.
That’s a long way of saying that we have to treat all people the same way. And the essence of it, for me—and this is very, very personal—is that we’re not.
I often refer to this book, called Blaming the Victim, which was one of my first forays into health disparities. It’s very tempting for folks to say, ‘Well, if you’d just gone to the doctor…’ But it’s not as simple as that; you don’t understand. If I go to the doctor, as an African American, I don’t get the same care as someone else who goes at the same time with the same condition. The doctor is going to treat me differently because of my race—or because of my gender, my obesity, or some pre-existing health condition—and then when I don’t get well, you blame me? We have a system that treats patients differently based on ability to pay, color of skin, sexual orientation—all kinds of variables—and that’s real. That’s real.
Your sub-committee is about community outreach and education. How have you tackled that in your personal life? Do you have some examples?
I’ve been on several of my older relatives about wearing masks. It took a minute, but I got my uncle to understand—you’re not wearing a mask to protect yourself as much as you’re wearing a mask to protect others. Does it have some protection? It’s debatable, but I imagine some. But for the most part, you’re wearing it for others. I had to explain it to my uncle in a way my uncle could understand. ‘Uncle James, you drive still, right?’ ‘Yeah, yeah.’ ‘Do you ever put on your turn signal?’ ‘Yeah.’ So, I said, ‘Is that for you or for the other person?’ ‘It’s to let the guy behind me know I’m about to turn.’ ‘Right, Uncle James, and that’s why we do the mask. It’s just like a turn signal; you’re letting the other person know that you’re being considerate. It’s not going to help you drive! And you already know you’re turning left.’ And finally, he got it.
We have to make sure people understand the severity of this virus. That’s part of the educational piece. Being smart about the virus and being smart about healthcare. Got a heart condition? Maybe back off on the hot sausage po-boy. Don’t eat the whole loaf. We have to do a better job with taking care of our own health.
Yet, there is no lack of information about what to do and not do, per se.
True. But there is so, so much information that’s coming out and we’re losing folks because they’re not paying attention or because the important stuff is getting lost. There was a moment when some African Americans didn’t believe they could get COVID-19 because someone spread some crap on the Internet. ‘This is an Asian disease.’ Foolishness! Misinformation, inaccurate information—this is a big issue.
The committee I’m on is about how we can educate and get the word out into the community.
Why is it important for LSU to be involved?
Because of our stature as a flagship campus and being the big academic player in terms of size, we are and should be the go-to. We have two Health Sciences Centers on either end of the state; we have a medical research center down the street from our main campus; and we have a law center that can look at things through a legal lens. We have the expertise the state can call on, and it should be LSU.
I’m proud of this taskforce, and with LSU’s role as a leader in research and a leader in healthcare, we have to be in that conversation.
What can a taskforce do?
I don’t have time for foolishness. Well, those who really know me will say, ‘Dereck, you’re all about foolishness,’ but no, this cannot be busywork or show-work, it has to be real work. The taskforce will deliver advice to the government and the legislature as to how to respond. We can inform policy and try to make sure our policies do not create or reinforce disparities, which is all too common.
Can you give me an example?
There is a former student of mine I was talking with last week and he’s a lead physician up in Chicago and they were talking about the plan they would implement if they ran out of ventilators. How would they prioritize? Who would get them? The hospital was discussing a plan and among 15 people in that room, my former student pointed out that their suggested policy was inherently racist. They said, ‘No, it’s not. We didn’t say anything about race.’ ‘But you did. You said patients who have hypertension or pre-existing conditions or obesity would be lower on the priority list. De-facto, you’ve created a racial imbalance.’
So, having the ability to impact policy is huge. This gets right to it. This is why I’m on this taskforce.
What drives you on a day-to-day basis?
Louisiana is my favorite state, and my family is my favorite family, and my immediate family is my favorite people—and I want all of those to be around. I want all of those to continue, and we can’t continue if we don’t do better.
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