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Public-health crises converge

Experts weigh in on the connection between the movement for racial justice and the global pandemic.

September 8, 2020

By Cory Phare

Disparities faced by people of color in America’s health care and criminal-justice systems are deeply intertwined. The COVID-19 pandemic and protests for racial justice have made the connection clearer and the calls for policy responses louder.

“In the context of COVID-19, the emergence of Black Lives Matter as a social movement makes sense,” said Devon Wright, Ph.D., assistant professor of Africana Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “One cannot understand problems of today’s modern health care system without understanding issues of race and racism.”

MSU Denver students this fall are exploring the convergence of social movements and the global pandemic in Wright’s new class, “Black Lives Matter and COVID-19.”

Colorado in July declared racism a public-health crisis in response to ongoing protests and inequities spotlighted by the pandemic. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data released Aug. 20 show the degree to which COVID-19 disproportionately affects residents of color.

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Black Coloradans make up 4.6% of the state’s population, but between March 1 and Aug. 15, nearly 10% of hospitalized patients in the state were Black. Hispanic-identified people make up 22% of the state’s population but accounted for nearly 38% of hospitalizations during that period; in May, that number jumped to more than 50% of hospitalized patients.

White people were less likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19, according to CDPHE data, accounting for 41% of hospitalized patients despite representing nearly 68% of Colorado’s population.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data released Aug. 20 show the degree to which COVID-19 disproportionately affects residents of color. Source: CDPHE
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data released Aug. 20 show the degree to which COVID-19 disproportionately affects residents of color. Source: CDPHE

People of color have long faced implicit biases in the health care system, said Katrina Little, MSN, a community-health expert and faculty member in MSU Denver’s Department of Nursing.  What matters in this pandemic is how health disparities such as those highlighted by the CDPHE do or don’t translate into policy responses.

“Many will be dismissive of (the data), unfortunately,” Little said, “because if it doesn’t directly impact them, their families or their communities, there’s the perception of, ‘That’s not our problem.’”

TEDx MSU Denver: Reimagining postpartum and newborn care to improve the high maternal mortality rates for women of color

Public-health power

Widespread protests of police brutality against people of color persisted from the end of May, when cellphone video surfaced showing the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, through the end of August, when another viral video captured a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer shooting Jacob Blake seven times in the back.

While protests demanding equity in policing appear to have staying power, Wright predicts conversations about racial equity will find lasting footing on the grounds of public health.

“It’s imperative to study who’s disadvantaged with access to health care, as race is a social construct with very real sociopolitical impacts,” he said. “No one should be ruined because they get sick.”

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Questions of health equity raised by a summer dominated by the pandemic and protests drew MSU Denver human-development and family studies student Chanda Clark to Wright’s course, which is cross-listed with the University’s political-science and sociology departments.

“I wonder about things like, ‘Will (people of color) actually see a vaccine? Who will have access to it? What’s the ‘normal’ we get back to?’” she asked.

Wishful thinking

The social-media broadcast of Floyd’s killing in the midst of spring’s COVID-19 lockdowns created the conditions for a singularly focused dynamic to explode in protests across the country.

“There weren’t distractions; people couldn’t look away,” Wright said. “There were no sports – no baseball or basketball – and you were just seeing (the killing of Floyd) over and over again, these nearly nine minutes of an unarmed Black man being brutally murdered.”

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That dynamic forced the country to confront the inequities experienced by Black Americans that are the legacy of historical systemic deprivation or poverty, Little said. Those include air pollution in minority residential areas, the large percentages of Black people working in high-virus-transmission fields and general higher rates of comorbidities in their communities.

“It’s a part of our shared American history no one wants to talk about because it’s painful,” she said. “Painful for white Americans, too – you have people who are genuine in their empathy for the lived experiences of others who wish it wasn’t like this.

“But wishing it away has not been effective – so we have to have a concerted effort.”

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