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WBUR Town Hall RECAP: The Racial Inequities Revealed By COVID-19

Coronavirus has stripped bare the racial divide in the health of our nation. People of color are dying at disproportionate and devastating rates due to underlying health conditions – often caused by inadequate access to good health care, more exposure to air and water pollution, and limited outdoor space.

WBUR senior news correspondent Kimberly Atkins spoke with U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley; Dr. Paula Johnson, physician and president of Wellesley College; Dr. Mary T. Bassett, director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights and professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to explore these topics.

Interview Highlights

On neglecting a scientific approach to structural racism: 

U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley: Could you just speak a little bit to what medical students are taught ... [and] how this is embedded, that black pain is often delegitimized and people are sent home compromised?

Dr. Paula Johnson: This is something that I've studied since the 1990s, and we've known that these disparities exist. We've known that, with similar symptoms, people of color will be turned away. [Their] pain is not taken as seriously, and I could go down the list. [It] takes four times to visit the doctor before you get a diagnosis of lupus ... We've just not gotten serious about this. We have not taken a scientific, rigorous approach to structural racism in our health care environment ... We have not rigorously examined ourselves and the structures.

And the absolute incorrect way to take this is to take it personally, because if you personalize it, then you become defensive. Of course, you are part of it. What we should say is [that] we are part of the United States of America, and therefore, of course, there is structural racism in our institutions. And therefore we have to take responsibility, particularly as scientists and as people in the medical field, to rigorously examine what those roots are and how we get to the bottom of it. But we have yet, really, to do that.

On navigating a 'pandemic within a pandemic':

Pressley: When we were in the early phases of the coronavirus, I remember many a heated debate within our home community, within the black community, hearing from so many people that were afraid to wear masks. We were beginning to learn how this was spread and how necessary it was for people,  in order to keep themselves safe and others ... to wear masks. People were afraid to wear masks for fear of being racially profiled, and their lives being in jeopardy.

And so, again, it just speaks to the fact that the preexisting condition here is racism. We are navigating a pandemic within a pandemic — the pandemic that is the coronavirus which has disproportionately hit black and Latinx communities ... all while dealing with the trauma of another pandemic, which is the scourge that is police brutality borne out of our original sin.

I even saw some reports that said the statistics are greater that you would have an interaction with law enforcement that would be negative or could cost you your life as a black person, than contracting COVID-19.

People are weighing the risk. I was also out there and I do maintain that there will be unrest in our streets for as long as there is unrest in our lives. And these peaceful demonstrations — these mobilization efforts — are completely shifting the national conversation and consciousness.

These are intergenerational, multi-racial movements at a time of acute pain and [an] inflection point for our country≥ And it's why right now we are having a real conversation about ... how to keep our communities healthy and safe. It's why we're having a conversation about restitution and reparations ... The rage is not only about the killing, brutal killing of another unarmed black man. It is about all of it. People are weighing that risk because we cannot return to a status-quo normal.

On keeping the attention on racial disparities post-pandemic:

Dr. Mary T. Bassett: I think that decision is being made by the people who are on the streets. And I'm with them. This is something that — I've worked in public health for over 30 years. And I haven't seen this type of mass mobilization, saying ... that this has been centuries in the making and it has to stop. It was made by people, these disparities, and it can be fixed by people.

I don't think that it's really going to be a technical issue. This is a political issue. I'm very proud of the way in which it's been grasped with both hands by so many people.

Pressley: I would just add to that these disparities, to the doctor's point, they're manmade, but they were codified in policy, in lawmaking. The reason why there is a racial wealth gap that is so damning in the city of Boston has everything to do with policy. The reason why there is such a disparity when it comes to life expectancy, to median household wealth, has everything to do with lawmaking. And that's why we have to be anti-racist in our lawmaking.

This hurt was precise — it was targeted through discriminatory and draconian lawmaking. And so, if we can legislate disproportionate hate, hurt and harm onto communities of color, then we can also legislate healing and justice.

Editor's note: The name of Mass. Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders was misspelled in one of the slides shown during this event. We regret the error. 

This article was originally published on June 05, 2020.

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