Boxed In: 'What COVID-19 Has Taught Us About Racism as a Public Health Crisis'

In this episode of Boxed In, psychiatrist and Everyday Health Medical Editor in Chief Patrice Harris, MD, discusses how disparities within the healthcare system lead to vastly different health outcomes for Black Americans.


Boxed In: What COVID-19 Has Taught Us About Racism As a Public Health Crisis

Boxed In: What COVID-19 Has Taught Us About Racism As a Public Health Crisis

In this episode of Boxed In: COVID-19 and Your Mental Health, "What COVID-19 Has Taught Us About Racism as a Public Health Crisis," we hear from Patrice Harris, MD, a psychiatrist and past president of the American Medical Association (AMA). Dr. Harris was the first Black woman to be elected AMA president, in 2019, and is currently a visiting professor in the department of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York City.

Dr. Harris is also Everyday Health’s new medical editor in chief, and will oversee Black Health Facts, a resource center for facts about racial disparities in healthcare. Join Dr. Harris and Everyday Health’s editor in chief, Maureen Connolly, as they delve into the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community, and what work needs to be done to address racism as a public health crisis.

The following are some highlights from an edited transcript of the interview.

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Maureen Connolly: The number of deaths from COVID-19 among the Black U.S. population is disproportionately higher than any other race or ethnicity. Doctors and public health officials say that there are many factors contributing to this. Can you outline what these are?

Patrice Harris: The numbers are startling, but I have to say they're not surprising to many who already were well aware of the disproportionate burden of illness in this country. Look at cancer, hypertension, and diabetes. And certainly COVID-19 has brought into stark reality a lot of gaps in the health infrastructure and issues around health inequities in our country. As we think about these inequities, we need to think about them as avoidable — meaning they don't have to be so. We need to think about them in the context of social determinants of health, right? Access to transportation, affordable housing, employment, education, access to fresh fruits and vegetables. But I think it's critical for us to look even further upstream, and to look at issues around structural racism, bias, and discrimination.

Connolly: Would you say that racism is a public health crisis? Can you explain what that means?

Harris: As we talk about racism and structural inequities, let's admit that sometimes the conversations can be complicated, hard, and uncomfortable. But everyone needs to know this information. I think there is a tendency to think that unless I share that lived experience, it doesn't impact me, and I don't have to think about it. That's one of the many reasons why it's so important to have these conversations, elevate them, and have everyone realize that they impact us all.

The American Public Health Association defines racism as a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks, which is what we call race. And of course, this system unfairly advantages some individuals and communities, unfairly disadvantages [other] individuals and communities, and saps the strength of the whole society through the waste. I like that because it really talks about the system, but also about how it saps the strength of everyone. My hope then is a call to action for all of us to do what we can to address this issue, both in our own backyard and in the organizations we belong to. And that is why certainly racism is a public health crisis. It's a public health threat, and a public health threat that impacts us all.

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Connolly: What worries you the most about what you're seeing unfold in relation to COVID-19, and how can we stay solution-oriented?

Harris: Well, I'm worried that we won't take the time to learn the lessons that we should learn. Again, many of these lessons should have been learned pre-COVID, but certainly right now COVID has forced attention on issues that people didn't have to see before because there were a lot of distractions. And once we get through the acute phase of a crisis, we don't take the time or we're not as intentional as we need to be about the lessons learned.

That's I think another opportunity for Everyday Health, to make sure that we’re talking about mental health and we’re talking about trauma. But not just talking about it, holding systems accountable. Amplifying the conversation and holding systems accountable so that we can move. There are a lot of things on our to-do list, and it's going to be difficult to figure out how to prioritize and what to tackle first. But I do think we have to make sure that we tackle all of these. And again, that's where teamwork comes into play. Physicians don't have to do it all, Everyday Health doesn't have to do it all — there's a role for everyone. This is why we need to have what I call an “all of society approach” when it comes to health and wellness.

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