Q&A: Assemblymember Rob Bonta on health disparities and the COVID pandemic

Assemblymember Rob Bonta represents California’s 18th Assembly District, which includes the central East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. Before being elected to office in 2012, he was an Alameda City Councilman. Bonta is on the Committee of Health. He is also a co-chair of the COVID-19 Racial Disparities Task Force. In this Q&A, Bonta explains his passion for equity in health care, particularly how vulnerable populations have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.


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Shawna De La Rosa: Why did you help launch the COVID-19 Racial Disparities Task Force?

Asm. Rob Bonta: “We already have a problem with health equity, and COVID-19 made it worse. That’s why we have higher percentages of cases in communities of color that are made up of essential workers. 

We need to really look at our society as a whole and the inventions we take through the equity lens. As it is, our most vulnerable communities are hit first and hit worse. This task force really highlights that we need to approach this in a way that uplifts the most vulnerable through resources.”

SD: What are some solutions to this problem?

RB: “We had the Great Oakland Outreach, where we sent “trusted messengers” out into the most vulnerable communities, including to seniors, to see if they are OK. We’ve increased testing in hot spots, which are often in those vulnerable locations. We want to provide more PPE to front-line workers.

We have families living in multigenerational housing, and someone is often a frontline worker, so we are really trying to help those communities. Trusted messengers are those who speak their language and who are trusted by the community.

The question is, how do you create resilient communities that you can communicate with and create a way to hear from them. We want to share information and resources quickly and support legislation that is consistent with our equity approach. 

We are also looking at how the vaccine will be made available. Will it go the wealthiest? Or will go to those who are most at-risk in vulnerable communities?”

SD: What are some other health care issues you will address in the near future? 

RB: “I believe that health care is a right, not a privilege. Every Californian should have access to high quality care, despite their race and gender. And that explains everything I do. I’ve been part of the Health Care for All movement. Health care legislation is a top priority for me. There is a bill related to contract tracing and how that information should be kept in a locked box and not be shared with other agencies, such as ICE. There also could be a bill that provides a definition about who gets the vaccine in a fair and equitable way.”

SD: How do you think the upcoming election will impact your efforts?

RB: “I think we can continue. If Trump wins, we are in the same boat as we are now. The Affordable Care Act is already at risk. If (the act) gets abolished, then having Biden and Kamala in office and would give us allies that also want to make sure we have health care. They don’t want the act removed, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

It will be a huge obstacle if the Affordable Care Act is struck down. It’s expensive, and I don’t know how we’d pay for it. But the decisions we make have to be values-driven.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.