Racism in Healthcare: COVID-19 Disproportionately Affecting Black Lives
Updated: May 22
Racism in healthcare is a prominent example of how systemic racism can affect a group's livelihood. Black communities face more discrimination, limited healthcare access and utilization, educational and income gaps, and inadequate housing.
These factors contribute to a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 and have led to more troubling statistics of lost wages and healthcare services reduction.
According to research, COVID-19 affects Black/ethnic minority groups on a larger scale than their white counterparts.
Black people were 3.57x more likely to die from COVID-19 than white Americans. They are at the highest risk for coronavirus but are the least likely to take the vaccine.
The levels of mistrust in the Black community towards the government and vaccines are backed up by years of racism and deception in healthcare. In addition to vaccine fear, people of color, especially Black people, have been neglected in mass incarceration and detention centers, facing rampant COVID-19 spread.
History of Health Disparities
Many Black individuals and families have experienced the repercussions of systemic racism in healthcare. From misinformation to lack of consent to digital discrimination, the lasting impact has cost lives.
Implicit bias is an unconscious influence of prejudice and stereotypes and frequently happens in the medical community.
In the 19th century, Black bodies were classified as "inferior," leading to "justified" discrimination and medical experimentations without consent. Value was not placed on their lives, and in turn, led to gruesome experiments and gross neglect.
The Tuskegee studies involved Black men targeted by researchers claiming to treat "bad blood," a term that encompassed illnesses such as syphilis, anemia, and fatigue.
Projected to last only six months, the experiment went on for 40 years to provide researchers an understanding of syphilis.
Even though penicillin effectively treated syphilis by this time, these men never received proper treatment, and researchers continued to observe the men until their deaths.
Henrietta Lacks was a 30-year-old African American woman who died in 1951 from cervical cancer. Her cells continued to live on but were unethically seized without her or her family's consent.
They were cultured and produced on a mass level, circulating in the scientific research community for medical breakthroughs, including polio, cancer treatments, and IVF.
Lacks' surviving family members never received any knowledge or compensation about her cells' abilities and were even subjected to scientific research.
America has a long-standing history of failing black women, but in particular, black mothers. Most pregnancy-related deaths are preventable, but black women experience 4-5x more deaths than white women, even when they have higher education and income.
Serena Williams approached a nurse after experiencing loss of breath and was dismissed. When Williams kept fighting, and the doctor finally ordered a test, her lung CT showed several blood clots.
Despite Serena Williams' status, she was still subjected to medical racism that could have cost her life.
Sadly, even AI has had patterns of medical racism towards Black people. Medical software devices tracked self-identification and gave fewer referrals to those identified as Black because their care costs were less over a year than for white patients, even though, in most cases, the Black patient was sicker.
Global Scale of Racism
Unfortunately, this pattern of medical racism extends further than the United States. A similar history has been proven in other countries.
In France, INSEE, a government statistics agency, discovered the shocking disproportionate deaths among immigrants born in Africa and Asia.
Immigrants in France often live in crowded and neglected neighborhoods. Two French scientists even suggested testing experimental vaccines on Africans for COVID-19, leading to a rightfully angry protest.
In the United Kingdom, Black, Asian, and minority ethnic individuals have a higher coronavirus rate. Many minorities here have experienced the same mistreatment patterns as minorities in America, being subjected to months of being overexposed and under-protected.
Black Britons are 4x more likely to die than white people. Similarly, these communities of people suffer due to systemic racism that keeps them in low-income neighborhoods, poverty levels, and little healthcare access.
Diminishing Vaccine Fear
The FDA has granted emergency approval for the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. Only 14 percent of Black Americans trust in the new vaccine's safety, and only 18 percent trust its effectiveness.
However, the surge of pushback from Black people against the COVID vaccine isn't a typical "anti-vaxxer" response but rather from historical events and continued neglectful treatments.
Black doctors make up only 4% of doctors in America and fought racism from health professionals, including the American Medical Association, which continually denied membership of Black doctors.
In 1895, The National Medical Association was founded to be a dominant force eliminating injustices in healthcare. This professional society of African American doctors is working hard to combat vaccine reluctance.
President Dr. Rodney Hood established a COVID-19 task force on August 4, 2020. They have re-analyzed coronavirus data taken from Pfizer, Moderna, and other vaccine manufacturers to ensure its safety for the Black community.
It requires meticulous effort because they have to succeed in endorsing the vaccines and maintaining patients' trust.
Among the fight to diminish vaccine fear includes the Morehouse School of Medicine. With a $40 million grant, they will build engagement in vulnerable communities, provide culturally appropriate information about the virus, and support access for vaccinations.
Besides, the American Nurses Association's President, Ernest Grant, has participated in the Moderna vaccine trial. His contribution to diminishing vaccine fear was to demystify it for concerned individuals and endorse vaccination importance.
The oversight from trusted Black doctors may help to assure the Black community that the vaccine is safe. However, the fight to end racism in healthcare beyond COVID-19 still has a long way to go.
Public health and medical officials, media, and politicians have to reach out to these communities with assurance for their health and safety regarding both the virus and the vaccine. Transparency and trust are key factors in overcoming health disparities.
Solidarity is needed to push for broader testing and contact tracing for at-risk communities, and this can start by signing a petition.
Sovena Ngeth is a Philadelphia-based writer who is passionate about using her words for change. She is also a content writer at the International Youth Organization for Peace and Sustainability.
Inputs and Edits by Aswin Raghav R.