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Published On June 16, 2020

POLICY

Podcast: A Tale of Two Pandemics

The crises of racism and COVID-19 overlap and reinforce one another. What steps can medicine take to make the pandemic response more just?

Throughout U.S. history, viral epidemics have disproportionately hurt minority groups. Native Americans died from the 1918 flu pandemic at four times the rate of other groups, and during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, Latinos in California were twice as likely as whites to become ill and die. The prevalence of HIV among African-Americans today is seven times higher than it is among whites, and this trend, sadly, continues with COVID-19.

To take one example, African-Americans make up 29 percent of the population in Chicago, but account for 70 percent of COVID-19 related deaths. The reasons for this are complicated but are rooted in a racism that limits access to economic opportunities, housing and a healthy life.

“In health care, we are not immune to this,” says Joseph Betancourt, a physician and the chief equity and inclusion officer at Massachusetts General Hospital. He and teams at the hospital have been working to look after the needs of underserved communities during the pandemic. The protests after the killing of George Floyd on March 25 put their work in even sharper focus. “This idea of, ‘I can't breathe,’ I mean, the health care community fought tooth and nail to help COVID-19 patients breathe, and to watch somebody deliberately do that to a person has activated the nation and the world to a call for justice and change.”

The podcast also speaks with Dayna Matthew, the next dean of George Washington University Law School, who wrote the book Just Medicine: A Cure for Racial Inequality in American Health Care. She explores why an estimated 84,000 minorities die each year from inadequate care. “Because of racial bias within the health care system itself, we have unnecessary, preventable and avoidable deaths. These are due to illness that could be prevented if people had equal access to health care and equal quality health care.”

The protests of the past few weeks have signaled a turning point, says Betancourt. “It has just really led to this incredible sense from everyone of how these injustices can no longer be tolerated. People are standing up in ways that I think I certainly haven't seen in my lifetime,” he says: “And I think there's incredible potential here to drive in some real significant changes.”

Listen to the Proto podcast below. Subscribe to future episodes on iTunes, Stitcher and other platforms.

A Tale of Two Pandemics