Courtesy of Cornell

Inequalities in health care has been brought to light by the COVID-19 pandemic.

April 1, 2021

Racism in America Panel Dives Into Structural Inequalities of COVID-19

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As communities of color across America have been disproportionately impacted by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cornell professors came together to discuss these inequities and steps forward to mitigate racial inequities. 

Monday’s “Racism In America” panel focused on the impact of systemic racism during the pandemic and featured a panel of Cornell professors as well as Akilah Johnson, a reporter at the Washington Post. 

Dr. Susana Morales, clinical medicine, opened the discussion by stating that COVID has shown the ways that structural racism impacts health.

Morales said that Americans of color are more likely to have health conditions that are risk factors for COVID and are less likely to have an easily accessible physician. Even once they are able to receive treatment,  they are admitted to hospitals much later on average and have higher overall death rates when compared to their white counterparts.

“The United States has a rigidly hierarchical social system where race is the key driver,” Morales said. “Policy decisions are affected by racism and decisions made sometimes long ago reverberate today.” 

Morales went on to mention that a disproportionate number of communities of color are uninsured or on medicaid and receive lower standards of healthcare compared to those on private or employer provided healthcare plans.

“All too often, communities of color have not had a voice and have not been represented in government, academic, philanthropic and legal sectors that make these decisions,” Morales said. 

Prof. Neil Lewis Jr., communication, discussed how the pandemic has highlighted implicit racism in everyday life, using different reactions to Black populations wearing masks as an example. 

“Even something as simple as whether you can walk around in a mask in peace is affected by a system of racism in this country. If you are a black or brown person, you constantly have to think about things like that,” Lewis said. 

Prof. Jerel Ezell, africana studies, raised the concept of intention versus impact, in which many policies have disproportionate outcomes even though there were no racist sentiments in their creation.

“It really doesn’t matter if it is the causes or consequences that are racist, if one or the other is [true] then we have an issue,” Ezell said.

Lewis agreed with Ezell, and added that this contributes to the importance of having more diverse individuals shaping public policy. 

Another focus of the event was critical race theory, which outlines the idea that racism is something that is institutionally embedded in society. The speakers stressed the importance of shifting thinking about racism as a problem of intersecting social areas, as opposed to a solely individual problem. 

Prof. Jamila Michener, government, said that critical race theory provides a framework to understand how structural racism has a significant impact on the healthcare system, putting emphasis on the ways that Medicaid and other public policies contribute to racial inequities.

“You don’t need anyone on the medical admissions committee who is racist, you just need standards that even though they are neutral on their face, have disproportionate standards for the inclusion of people of color,” she said. 

Among communities of color, inequity in the distribution of vaccines has also come to the forefront as more individuals become eligible. The panel discussed how aside from the unequal availability of transportation to vaccination sites and education on the process, vaccination inequalities are developing due to a legitimate concern among people of color about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. 

“When you tell me: ‘take this vaccine and you’re first in line,’ I’m suspicious and it’s not because I’m paranoid and it’s not because I’m unreasonable, I have a lifetime of experiences [with disparate treatment],” Michener said.

To curb vaccine hesitancy and improve healthcare accessibility for communities of color overall, all the panelists emphasized a collective need to  overcome implicit biases. 

“We all want to be heard and to receive high quality care, what bias can do is make people blind and deaf to other people’s needs,” Morales said. 

Correction, April 1, 10:07 a.m.: A previous version of this article misrepresented statements by Prof. Jamila Michener regarding critical race theory in relation to healthcare. The article has been updated to better reflect her statements.