• Mona Reddy Kurra

Medical Racism in the Pandemic

Learn about systemic racism in the healthcare system that was highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

How has the course of the pandemic exposed some of the most prevalent disparities within the institutions of our society?

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought upon a variety of challenges,

ranging from financial concerns coupled with physical health issues, as well as an increased prevalence of mental health conditions, heightened social tensions, and a general lack of stability. The pandemic era shifted the priorities — and perspectives — of many individuals, bringing about radical change during these tumultuous times.

Though COVID-19 created unprecedented hurdles, it also offered an opportune time for growth, particularly on a societal level. With the focus on racial injustices in society and the ongoing healthcare crisis, the pandemic brought to light the intersection between these realms, highlighting the impact of public health on all aspects of life and the significance of social determinants of health. The obstacles exacerbated by the pandemic provided a chance to confront a multitude of worldviews, aiming to overcome the struggles surrounding global issues, ranging from healthcare accessibility to systemic racism, all of which have an extreme impact on the medical field.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the discrimination, prejudice, and racism that are present in the structural systems of society — particularly relating to healthcare, education, criminal justice, employment, and banking — can create chronic stress that puts these targeted groups at a heightened risk for contracting conditions such as COVID-19. In particular, the CDC states how these elements “are associated with more COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in areas where racial and ethnic minority groups live, learn, work, play, and worship” (CDC). The indirect effects of COVID-19 that occur, as well as those that occur in conjunction to and as a result of mitigation strategies to stop the spread, can further worsen the stressors placed on these groups. Beyond this, a layer of complexity is added when considering the environmental contributors to such discrimination that are rooted in the foundations of society.

Besides the disproportionate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on populations of color, the historical treatment of these groups have contributed to a continued mistrust in the medical community, leading to further detrimental effects on these communities. For example, according to findings from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s survey on race, health, and COVID-19 in relation to the experiences of Black Americans, “About half of Black adults say they would not want to get a coronavirus vaccine if it was deemed safe by scientists and freely available, with safety concerns and distrust cited as the top reason. [...] Seven in ten Black adults believe race-based discrimination in health care happens at least somewhat often, and one in five say that they have personally experienced it in the past year” (Hamel et al.). These findings and notable statistics presented in more popular media sources — such as research regarding experiences with Black women maternal mortality — are reaffirmed by the historical roots of treatment of Black people in medicine and medical research. From the Tuskegee Syphilis study to the treatment of Henrietta Lacks to the representation of Black people in medical textbooks and beyond, the Black community, and other people of color, have experienced countless episodes of exploitation, creating a source of this mistrust in the community. The context of these issues has come to attention even more with the pandemic, underlining the impact that these critical issues have in all fragments of society.