Training Future Child Health Leaders

We Must Address Basic Needs During and After COVID-19

By: Erin Pastor, MD

I am a pediatric resident physician on the brink of graduation. The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly altered everything I learned during my medical training. In particular, my outlook on how best to support patients has forever changed and I have increased appreciation of the many barriers underserved families face in accessing basic needs. I now understand that we must do better to work together to help families survive this crisis and thrive long after the pandemic winds down.

Changes to my clinical practice have been rapid and extensive. Traditional office visits are virtual telemedicine encounters. Educational conferences are video conferences that I watch from home. I spent the last three years in nearly constant contact with my fellow residents, but now haven’t seen them in months. Changes because of COVID-19 extend beyond my professional life. Weddings and birthday parties are canceled. My parents have not been able to visit my infant daughter. I watched my grandmother’s funeral on my cell phone.

While COVID-19 has changed all of our lives, we must remember to focus not only on ourselves during this difficult time, but also focus on our community.

COVID-19 has affected how my patients and their families access services to meet basic needs. Children are out of school and no longer have access to food programs. Parents struggle to balance work, if they are still employed, and lack of childcare. These struggles became starkly apparent as I tried to locate baby wipes for my daughter. After trying multiple stores, I purchased them in bulk from Amazon.com: 720 wipes for $42.99. I thought of the new mothers I work with every day. How are families coping if they lack access to transportation and the ability to buy in bulk, and what could I do to help?

One of the most critical ways to ensure children’s health is to provide them with access to nutritious foods. With COVID-19-related school closures, many children have lost the guarantee of two daily meals. To help, I compiled a list of food resources for my patients. I thought this would be a simple task but it turned out to be difficult. Although centralized listings of food resources exist, most are difficult to navigate. I found many organizations did not list specific dates or hours they are open and many links were not current and did not reflect closures due to COVID-19. Additionally, navigating websites using a cell phone browser was challenging. I now understand why so many families struggle to access these resources.

I also learned that many community programs, including food pantries, are struggling due to COVID-19. Organizations are no longer receiving the donations they depend on and large community meals are discouraged. Sadly, so many of our critical community resources are unable to operate when we need them the most.

A final barrier I encountered was transportation. While the list I created had many options for families, they were difficult to access. For example, school districts hold lunch pickups daily, or every other day, depending on the location, which requires families to travel three to five times each week. With the current outbreak, would you want to put your child on multiple buses or in an Uber to get lunches?

I now understand that everyone in our community should work to help children and their families easily access critical resources to meet basic needs during these trying times. As the pandemic continues to require school and work closures, families will continue to need our help.

There are simple things we can all do:

  • First, we should be mindful that not everyone can buy in bulk and limit our own buying to what we need.
  • Second, we need to support local community organizations, either with donations of time, money or accepted goods.
  • Third, we need to work together to improve our infrastructure for vulnerable communities including access to food resources and transportation.

When COVID-19 passes, inequities in our communities will continue and families will still need support to meet their basic needs. We must not forget the challenges we faced and continue to work together to ensure all of our children become thriving adults.

Erin Pastor, MD is a resident physician at Connecticut Children’s and the UConn School of Medicine.

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