The Collisions Between COVID-19 And Structural Racism

Started on Monday, March 16, 2020, the COVID-19 Task Force on Racism & Equity was established out of a concern for the lack of documentation on and attention to health inequities in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Task Force is a partnership between the UCLA Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, Department of Urban Public Health. Membership comprises public health researchers & practitioners, healthcare providers, students, and community organizers.

Here, Dr. Mienah Sharif, a Postdoctoral Researcher for the Task Force, interviews Dr. Bita Amani, Co-Chair of the Task Force and Associate Professor of the Department of Urban Public Health at Charles R. Drew University School of Medicine and Science. We discuss Dr. Amani’s concerns as a social epidemiologist regarding the pandemic, the motivations behind the creation of The Task Force, and why she and her colleagues have chosen storytelling as a format to restructure the dominant narrative and the governmental response to COVID-19.

Projecting The Pandemic Response Within A Racial Capitalistic System

Dr. Mienah Sharif: COVID-19 was formally declared a pandemic five months ago. As a social epidemiologist, what were some of your primary concerns regarding the pandemic back in March?

Dr. Bita Amani: The types of concerns, maybe even panic, we were feeling can be appreciated in these questions:

When there’s not enough public health resources, who’s going to be impacted the most?

When there’s a system programmed to abandon people already, who’s going to be “failed” even more?

We were feeling the enormous weight of all the existing disparities, inequities, and injustices and the ways that structural racism would exacerbate them and make new ones. Based on historical evidence, we anticipated that what was needed in order to protect the health and economic wellbeing of communities of color and to mitigate and contain Sars-COV-2 was likely not to be prioritized in the timely way it needed to be.

We were also very concerned about the US’s historic devaluing of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (POC) life and it’s pattern of investing in carceral services that use discipline and punishment to “manage” them AND its systematic disinvestment from services that are essential to providing dignity and wellbeing to society.

Public healtha is expansive and essential.

By being expansive, it includes other health sciences such as biomedicine and systems such as healthcare. By being essential, it is what structures optimum health for our children, youth, pregnant persons, and elderly. Everyone throughout their entire life course.

Yet, compared to military and law enforcement budgets, there has been very little investment into public health. And, the investments that are made, are made within a racial capitalistic system that determines its own “success” and “thriving” through obtaining power and privilege for a minority few at the cost of disproportionate disability, reduced quality of life, and loss of life for a racialized majority.

Also, we were worried about the existing systems that we needed to rely on to not only deliver our healthcare, but to manage testing and surveillance. These existing systems were formed and shaped by white supremacy and have resulted in both what Dorothy Roberts calls racial science and what ethicists such as Harriet Washington have described as medical racism. We have these very visible touch points in the care system that show how they think race is biologically deterministic and also believes it is being logical, rational, and practicing good science when it privileges white life over others.

We have care systems made up of workforces that are still learning about race, racism and equity and how science, medicine, and public health have participated in and perpetuate oppression. This was also deeply worrying.

And if that was not already enough to worry about, as social epidemiologists, we were also worried about how the pandemic, and the government’s response, was going to impact other social determinants of health, shaped primarily through other sectors of education, housing, and employment. Social determinants of health whose historical trajectories also are suffering from both a lack of substantive investment and racial inequities.

We could be telling the inequity story from the perspective of the educational system in this country, or the transportation system, or the system that manages employment, right? We could be talking about these things across a realm of sectors that provide for the social fabric of the country. These intersecting systems are not only important to us because of their direct connections to health, but also because they are vital to distributing power and privilege…political health. We were also concerned about all the work that our colleagues and organizers in these other realms were going to have to take on at this time as well.

Finally, we also knew that while we are talking about resources, in particular budgets and how they structure the values of society and where we believe we should focus our energies, we knew that on a meta level this was not about resources.

After all, the United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. So, then if this isn’t about not having enough money, then it is about something much deeper that is political, racial, and moral.

The COVID-19 Task Force Comes Together To Monitor Racism And Equity During The Pandemic

Dr. Mienah Sharif: You and Dr. Chandra Ford from the Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice and Health at the School of Public Health at UCLA, came together to create what is now called the COVID-19 Task Force on Racism and Equity earlier this year. I was curious about the motivations behind doing so. Why is it so critical that we mainstream factors such as racism and equity when addressing or discussing COVID?

Dr. Bita Amani: For many of us health scholars who study structural racism, we are always concerned about racial logics.

What are the assumptions? How has racialization got us to this point? And how does this current moment play a role in ongoing racialization?

These conversations have historically not been prioritized, or are in fact marginalized within public health. While there has been tremendous movement in this area, we also know there is a lot more work left for us to do.

Given how this pandemic has been caused by a novel virus, we anticipated that a great deal of action and priority was going to be given to learning more about the biology of this pathogen. How is this virus transmitted? What is the incubation period? What cells does it infect?

One of these questions inevitably has been, who’s most at risk physiologically?

This question in particular had us feeling an urgency to stay on top of the evolving research to monitor it for racial logics, to see if it perpetuates dangerous ideas of a biological race that claims groups of people have disease producing cultures and behaviors. These logics and the actions undertaken in their name have dramatic implications for the course of the pandemic.

So, the Task Force was coming together to monitor:

How is this information being generated? Interpreted? Used?

Another reason we came together was to inject into the conversation both scholarship and histories that are seminal to us understanding the moment and directing our strategies and actions towards an endpoint closer to liberation. This includes political education and some analysis across systems. And by systems, this also means communities.

In what ways can we move forward stronger and in what ways can we not have to be reactionary?

We know that certain battles are coming. These were the main reasons that the Task Force came together.

Finally, very important to the motivation behind developing the Task Force, is the international context in which structural racism emerges and is operating. This international piece is something that we are also addressing in the COVID Storytelling Project we are launching.

Centering Community Organizers & Advocates As Experts With The COVID Storytelling Project

Dr. Mienah Sharif: I’m really interested in learning more about the COVID Storytelling Project that the Task Force is launching and that you and Dr. Ford are co-leading. What was the interest or motivation behind storytelling as a format? Whose stories are you hoping to share? And what are you hoping that these stories will add to or perhaps restructure the dominant narrative, and the governmental response to the pandemic? How can one work towards making sure that people that really need to hear them do hear them?

Dr. Bita Amani: This is a fantastic question. Why storytelling versus something else?

We want to respect and center practices that are more decolonizing than not. And I say that word “decolonizing” hesitantly because decolonization is not only a process, but it is a process in service of the necessary endpoint of taking back and making something generative and just.

While there is much needed debate on whether our practices in research actually serve this goal, we believe that even as an idea, in the academy, it can hold much power. It draws our attention to how things have been done traditionally, and how these traditional practices co-produce oppression.

This pandemic unequivocally shows that what has been done, our old paradigms, our ways of thinking about the self, what is knowledge, our relationships to each other and the earth have to shift radically.

Traditionally, researchers have positioned themselves in the center as the experts and collect data in service of their already pre-established viewpoints shaped not only by their positionality but also their racial, gendered, and class interests.

For this project, we center organizers, advocates, and practitioners who are not only experts but also extremely vital to the trajectory of this pandemic. This includes abolitionists, community health workers, lawyers, family of those locked up in prisons, jails, and detention centers, and protestors.

Organizers addressing issues of access to technology, healthcare, and unemployment. Folks organizing on issues of mental health, parenting, and the environment.

All of these experts, all of these stories, all of the brilliant analysis and solution-making across all these realms and domains are COVID Storytelling.

Together, they are the holistic, comprehensive, community-based system that has been doing not only the mutual aid work now, but even before now. They are the system we need to be modeling on the larger level of the nation.

So, our research goal is to document this movement across sectors, elevate the problems and solutions, and center the roots that need to be radically transformed.

We believe that the perspectives and solutions to what we need to be focusing and how we need to be organizing through community and into institutions will be revealed from genuinely collaborating with those who are are most devastated by both what we are doing and not doing…the collateral consequences of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 Task Force on Racism & Equity is a partnership between the UCLA Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, Department of Urban Public Health. We document racism, inequity, and injustice during the COVID-19 pandemic through our COVID Racism Study. Support our work by following us on Twitter and Facebook today.

The @COVIDRacism Study documents racism, inequity & injustice during the COVID-19 pandemic. Led by UCLA’s @RacialHealthEq & @CDrewU.