Monroe Dispatch - No Struggle, No Progress

By Milford Greene PHD MPH
A Public Health Crisis 

Racism in America

 


In Public Health Too? In the June 4 – June 10, 2020 edition of The Monroe Dispatch (see Racism in America: A Public Health Crisis, page 10), I stated that top public health officials are calling racism a public health crisis. By the time the ink had dried on the page of my essay, the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) was being accused of discrimination. A complaint filed with the Office of Inspector General on behalf of at least 10 black epidemiologists employed with the agency alleges they were excluded from the core COVID-19 response team, despite having what they called equal or better qualifications. According to the complaint, Black employees were not kept abreast in any way: no phone calls, no strategy meetings, not even on emails. The complaint is under review so no statement as yet has been forthcoming from DPH. According to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 80% of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in Georgia during March were African Americans. Input from black epidemiologists on the core response team might have been helpful in ascertaining why infection rates were so high among African Americans.

Allow me to digress for a moment. In 2007, I was invited by the administration at Grambling State University to help in support of the school’s application for reaffirmation of its SACS accreditation. I had experience in this critical area. I would also teach courses in biology. But one of the courses I taught was an introductory course in Epidemiology, a course in the public health sciences. A somewhat simplistic definition of epidemiology is that it is the study of how disease is distributed in populations and the factors that influence or determine this distribution. Why does a disease develop in some people and not in others? The premise underlying epidemiology is that disease, illness, and ill health are not randomly distributed in human populations. Rather, each of us has certain characteristics that predispose us to, or protect us against, a variety of different diseases. These characteristics may be primarily genetic in origin or may be the result of exposure to certain environmental factors in the development of disease. I would tell my Grambling students as I had told other students in the past, when the ill wind blows, and it will blow, (from a genetic perspective) you had better hope you were born with the right stuff in order to deal with that ill wind should you come into contact with it. Needless to say, COVID-19 is the latest and most devastating of ill winds in modern times. Today, I hear from these Grambling graduates weekly from all corners of the world: Boston in New England, Utah, Edinburgh, Scotland, Taiwan, the Caribbean and even Shreveport. They have received M.D., Ph.D., and other advance degrees from many prestigious institutions. We established lasting student-professor relationships. They voice concerns about COVID-19 and about the dangers imposed by the rush to re-open our towns and cities, to discard our masks and disregard social distancing. I am concerned about COVID-19 too. But I also have fears about their being on the front lines as providers to our communities. In addition, I fear some may encounter treatment like the epidemiologists in the Georgia Department of Public Health for no apparent reason than they are black. I have been there. Going forward, not only must we tackle racism as a public health crisis in America, we must simultaneously excise racism in public health too, an institution that owes much of its existence to people of color. So here we are. As of May 1, African Americans in Louisiana accounted for 70% of COVID-19 deaths, while comprising 33% of the population. This is shockingly high and disproportionate mortality. We are now confronted with a major new health disparity, undoubtedly tied to our higher levels of comorbidities like hypertension and diabetes; and at the same time we continue to live with an old but intimate foe, discrimination in employment.

To be continued.

 

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