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Healey sees coronavirus highlighting, and increasing, inequality

Governor Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey unveiled a surprising but urgent message this past weekend: People who are sick — but not with COVID-19 — shouldn’t avoid going to the hospital.

Working quickly Saturday, they distributed a joint statement to a network of social and religious groups, aimed at (online) Sunday services. Overnight, Cardinal Sean O’Malley had it translated into at least 10 languages, so it could be broadly shared with a host of immigrant communities. The Massachusetts Council of Churches, Black Ministerial Alliance, and Greater Boston Interfaith Organization all helped get the message out.

What made this necessary? There was growing concern, including among health care officials that many people with serious illnesses, for a range of reasons, have been getting a message that they shouldn’t seek medical care right now.

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“We’ve been on calls every morning with the hospital executives,“ Healey said. “And one of the things we started to hear about from some of them — and hear about anecdotally as well — was that people were scared or reluctant to go to the hospital for fear of catching the virus, being surrounded by people who are sick, or knowing the hospitals have changed rules about who can go in. I just think there’s a lot of fear about this.”

For Healey, this was brought home directly. She had to prod an acquaintance who was hit by a car — not run over, but hit nonetheless — into going to the hospital.

“I’ve been particularly concerned about what’s going on in immigrant communities and communities of color,” Healey said. “We wanted to put the word out that if you have issues, do what you would always do. The hospitals are open.”

But, more broadly, the coronavirus crisis has been a lesson, in government and elsewhere, in the inequities that deeply divide us. Nothing about this has struck everyone the same, including being reluctant to seek health care. Immigrants and people of color have been particularly prone to stay away from a health care system already viewed as problematic.

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As attorney general, Healey gets to view the fallout of the pandemic from close range. Her office has been involved in everything from eviction preventions to family court issues, to advocating for the release of prisoners from facilities likely to become hotbeds of infection.

She said her office is at work on another message, for early this week, warning residents about the risks and scams that are afoot in this time of rampant misinformation.

Like all of us individually, the court system is struggling to adapt. Trials are off, but administrative hearings are being held virtually. Housing court is shut down, but Family and Probate Courts are struggling to continue to function. It’s a mess, bluntly, but Healey said she believes it’s vital that those parts of the government that can stay open do so.

But she worries most about the fault lines that are being exposed. Even before coronavirus, she notes, undocumented immigrants had been wary about seeking public assistance, including health care — exacerbated by the efforts of the Trump administration to use poverty, the so-called “public charge” policy, as a way to block immigrants or alter the status of those already in the country. So it’s not a surprise that they are among those now believed to be staying away from hospitals, even for urgent needs like dialysis.

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Healey has joined with Representative Ayanna Pressley and others to push the Baker administration to release more data by ethnicity on who is testing positive for the coronavirus, the better to drive responsible policy decisions. That data is beginning to come out faster, which is a good thing.

As much as Healey worries about the wide-ranging, long-lasting effects of the coronavirus, she believes good can come of forcing us to look at our society with fresh eyes.

“It’s all going to burn down,” she predicted. “Let this be the opportunity to build in a new way that will make a more just and equitable society, that will account for structural racism and build new structures that won’t perpetuate racism."


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.