As I write this article, peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd are enveloping the country, with thousands of people demanding justice for African Americans killed by law enforcement, and retribution for decades of racism that has plagued the criminal justice system. Though, while these demonstrations take place, another plague is ravaging the country that also disproportionately affects African Americans. The coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll of almost 114,000 American lives. 25% of those dead were African American, though this group makes up only 13% of the total US population. This dramatic burden that black Americans bear is indicative of a larger inequity in healthcare, due in large part to unequal access to medical resources and implicit bias on the part of doctors. So, in the spirit of the current environment of racial unrest, it is worth exploring another institution deeply rooted in racism, causing disparities in care that are indeed the difference between life and death.
Racism intrudes the roots of countless American institutions. People of color have, throughout history, been deliberately excluded and persecuted through the systemic discrimination built into the pillars of society. The coronavirus pandemic has unearthed the dramatically unequal distribution of deaths based on race, which shows us yet another piece of evidence that our healthcare system, one of those pillars of society, is not immune to, but instead is crippled by, deep-seated racism. To put it simply, the American healthcare system has failed people of color, depriving them of the unalienable right to life that is touted in our country’s founding documents. Why does this system, whose purpose is to treat and heal, do so unequally? This is a longstanding debate that spirals into the flaws of for-profit insurance and the morality of monetized healthcare, but for now we will focus on the immediate source of the disparity, the innate bias held by medical professionals that determine how they treat patients of color.
Implicit bias in medicine stems from centuries-long false perceptions of the human body and racist interpretations of science. For decades, even in modern medicine, the white male body was the reference for all humans, regardless of race and sex, which strengthened tenets of white supremacy and misogyny. Fast-forward to today and we find that mortality rates of pregnant black women and babies are devastating compared to those of white women and babies, that black Americans are 2.3 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white Americans, and that black people are less likely to get tested or treated for COVID-19 than white people. People of color are less likely to even receive accurate diagnoses and effective pain management, black children are more likely to be treated as adults and with less compassion, and data has found that physicians pursue different treatment paths based on their patient’s race.
A 2016 study showed that 50% of medical students and residents who were studied thought that Black people couldn’t feel pain the same way because they had thicker skin or their nerves didn’t work the same way,Source: https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/03/30/1516047113.abstract
With this in mind, imagine being a person of color explaining their discomfort and pain, only to be distrusted and disregarded by a health professional simply based on your ethnicity. Think about how demoralizing, frustrating, and traumatizing it is for people of color seeking care on a daily basis. When it becomes clear that the odds of successful treatment, that even getting the proper resources to be diagnosed correctly, are stacked against them, it is abundantly clear why African Americans bear the burden of COVID-19 that they do. Additionally, it is understandable that black and brown Americans have intense suspicion of medical professionals, and are incredibly anxious to seek medical attention when developing COVID-like symptoms. This still very homogenous, mostly white profession exudes the same vestiges of racial injustice that are rampant in other American institutions, including the law enforcement system that is now under intense scrutiny. Like the racism in the law enforcement system, the unequal treatment received by people of color, especially black Americans, is the difference between life and death, shifted in favor of the latter. Our deeply flawed healthcare system requires the same overhaul as that of other systems, and it is imperative that protestors and activists who are fighting for these reforms to demand them for the institution created to uphold our health and wellness, regardless of ethnicity.
For ways to educate yourself on the severity of the issue please refer to our previous article “Avoiding Performative Activism: How to Support and Educate Yourself”
For a comprehensive list of compiled resources on how to be an ally or help-out we have compiled a document: General Intelligence(s) Black Lives Matter Resource Guide
Please also attend our upcoming webinar for more ways to be involved.