Straight talk: A conversation about racism, health inequities and COVID-19

April 24, 2020
By: Ivan Natividad, Berkeley News

The broad death disparities black communities face during the spread of COVID-19 reflects health and societal inequities that existed for communities of color in the United States, long before the disease became a pandemic.

That’s according to experts from UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and Othering and Belonging Institute, who co-sponsored a virtual Berkeley Conversations discussion Friday that examined the reasons COVID-19 has been worse in black communities.

“We want to foster more understanding of the structural causes of these problems and also to think more creatively about the path forward,” said public health professor Denise Herd, who moderated the livestreamed event and is also associate director of the Othering and Belonging Institute.

Structural racism in the United States was the main topic of the discussion, as the five-person panel explored how the legacy of American racism has affected public policies, many of which, the experts said, are at the root of the disproportionate mortality rates in black communities.

Public health professor Mahasin Mujahid said rigorous data on minority communities can help to pinpoint and analyze inequities in black communities. But statistics can sometimes be used as false confirmation, she said.

“We heard the reasons that blacks are more likely to die because they’re more likely to have underlying conditions,” she said. “Quite frankly it helps society sleep at night. It alleviates the responsibility institutions and systems play in shaping the opportunity, resources, risks and social hierarchies that exist across the United States.”

Jason Corburn, a professor in School of Public Health and Department of City & Regional Planning, delved into those institutional policies like “redlining,” which, in the middle of the 20th century, created wide racial divides in the housing industry.  While those policies are now banned, they still influence the distribution of resources to poor communities of color.

“When we talk about resources currently, there are hospitals closing across the country, even here in the Bay Area, predominately in communities of color,” he said.

Public health professor Osagie Obasogie said that in order to move forward with solutions to these racial inequities, the history of disenfranchisement and racism in this country needs to be addressed by the greater public and said “uncomfortable conversations are necessary.”

The panel of experts also took questions from viewers on Facebook and conveyed different ways people can help bring solutions to these racial inequities.

Berkeley public health professor Amani Allen said the discussion needs to be expanded beyond academic institutions and more into the public realm for things to change.

“There’s a lot of power in the question ‘Why?” said Allen. “When we ask why, it forces us as individuals to really dig deeper and think about the origins of these disparities. … And we have to have this conversation as a country. People need to be having these conversations at their dinner tables every evening.”

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