Man holds up a sign at the Black Lives Matter protest in Washington DC 6/6/2020.

How Social Movements Shape the Law to Address Health Disparities

By Aziza Ahmed

We are facing a health crisis in America. In thinking through the causes of health disparities, a now well-developed body of public health law scholarship focuses in on the central issue of law as a social determinant of health. This scholarship examines the issue of how legal rules can determine health outcomes. Property laws that explicitly or implicitly discriminate against minorities, for example, often result in poor Black communities living in neighborhoods in which they may be more exposed to pollutants, resulting in higher rates of breast cancer or asthma. Or, immigration practices, including ongoing profiling at the border, as well as detention practices, may have mental and physical health impacts.

What is missing from legal scholarship on the social determinants of health is an account of how communities respond to change the legal environments that have the effect of producing poor health outcomes. In other words, how do communities demand a better legal system with regard to health inequality? Here, we must turn to social movements who often drive our national conversation on access to health care by doing the hard work of identifying, naming, and drawing attention to the complexity of issues that people face.

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Syringe and vials of vaccine.

Racial Inclusivity in COVID-19 Vaccine Trials

By Colleen Campbell

Recent calls for racial inclusivity in vaccine trials, which often rely on genetic rationales while emphasizing medical distrust among African Americans, unfortunately lack an equally robust critique of medical racism and the ongoing reasons for this distrust.

Even though race lacks genetic meaning, the COVID-19 discourse is rife with biological notions of race. Because of [g]enetics related to racial differences” African Americans must be involved in clinical trials, said Dr. Larry Graham in an NBC News article. He continued: “We must be sure it works in Black folks.” For this reason, companies like biotech firm Moderna are enlisting Black religious leaders to heavily recruit African American participants. They are also exploiting networks previously used for HIV clinical trials.

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Civil rights march on Washington, D.C. Film negative by photographer Warren K. Leffler, 1963. From the U.S. News & World Report Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. Photograph shows a procession of African Americans carrying signs for equal rights, integrated schools, decent housing, and an end to bias. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003654393/

Structural Racism: The Root Cause of the Social Determinants of Health

By Ruqaiijah Yearby, J.D., M.P.H.

In 1906, W.E.B. DuBois noted that social conditions, not genetics, impacted the health of Blacks, causing racial disparities in mortality rates. In 2010, the federal government formally recognized that social conditions, specifically the social determinants of health (SDOH), were responsible for racial health disparities.

Racial health disparities, estimated to cost the United States $175 billion in lost life years and $135 billion per year in excess health care costs and untapped productivity, persist because of the failure to address their root cause: structural racism.

Structural racism describes the way our systems are structured to produce racial inequalities between whites and racial and ethnic minorities in the SDOH, leading to racial health disparities.

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New York City, New York / USA - June 13 2020 New York City healthcare workers during coronavirus outbreak in America.

COVID-19 and the ‘Essential’ Yet Underappreciated Front-Line Health Care Worker 

By Kimani Paul-Emile

When considering those on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic response, most people likely envision doctors and nurses. However, there is an often forgotten, front-line workforce comprised of orderlies, nursing facility workers, and nursing assistants (“NAs”) that earns very little money, has few protections, and is largely Black and Brown and female. Many individuals in this group are also subject to a unique form of discrimination: rejection on the basis of their race or ethnicity by some of the very patients they are assigned to aid.

The millions of people who make up this group of essential workers constitute a substantial portion of the health care workforce and earn an average of $13.48 per hour despite the risks they take. Their work, which involves bathing, dressing, and feeding patients; brushing their teeth, and assisting with their use of the toilet, puts these workers at high risk of contracting COVID-19. Nevertheless, early in the pandemic, many of these workers lacked or had inadequate personal protective gear due to the tiered system used for distributing this equipment. Doctors and nurses were first in line for smocks, masks, and other essential gear; last were members of this underappreciated group of front-line health care workers.

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Woman holding sign that reads "I can't breathe."

Black Women Can’t Breathe

By Michele Goodwin

Years before George Floyd begged to be released from under the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin, Barbara Dawson, a fifty-seven year old Black woman, died begging a police officer, John Tadlock, not to remove her oxygen mask. Her death occurred right outside the Calhoun Liberty Hospital in Blountstown, Florida, shortly before Christmas in 2015.

Just before Officer Tadlock’s arrival, Ms. Dawson arrived at the hospital seeking oxygen. The hospital’s response to Ms. Dawson’s request was to call law enforcement. Photographs show Ms. Dawson slumped next to the police car. A police recording captures the tragic end of Ms. Dawson’s life. Officer Tadlock reprimands Ms. Dawson: “Falling down like this and laying down, that’s not going to stop you from going to jail.”

Ms. Dawson’s life ended on the pavement, feet away from the entrance of the hospital that phoned the police on their patient — because she refused to leave. She lay there nearly twenty minutes before being pronounced dead. It turns out she had a blood clot in her lungs.

In some sense, there is nothing extraordinary about the image of Ms. Dawson, or the interactions of the hospital and officer, which further complicates the deadly exchange. Indeed, the interaction was far too normal: Black women fear for their health and safety when they do not seek care and, troublingly, even when they do.

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Close-up Of Doctor's Hand Measuring Blood Pressure Of Male Patient.

Understanding the Role of Race in Health: A New Digital Symposium

By Craig Konnoth

In the 1980s, a vanguard of critical race theorists debated their contemporaries as to whether law could or should play a role in achieving equity — in particular, racial equity. Scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Williams argued that while legal discourse historically had been used to oppress Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), history had shown that in the law also lay the seeds of empowerment. Conceptualizing BIPOC as persons endowed with legal rights, and as a community subject to heightened legal solicitude because of the historical injustices they have faced, has helped undergird their selfhood, dignity, identity and activism. Law could thus be a discourse of despair — but also one of hope.

Whether or not the years have proved those claims correct as to the law, today, a similar debate unfolds in the context of race, medicine, and health care. Today, medicine and the health care system embody discourses of power that rival the law. Will these discourses inevitably serve to oppress BIPOC — and if not, how can we harness their power to achieve justice? Those are the questions that this symposium seeks to answer.

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a crowd of people shuffling through a sidewalk

The SSTAR Initiative: A Policy Proposal for a Full, Equitable Recovery from COVID-19

By Sara E. Abiola and Zohn Rosen

Full recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. will require new policy that promotes equity and streamlines access to social services while supporting small businesses

Unprecedented job loss due to COVID-19 has led to an economic crisis for families of all backgrounds and income levels.

Current health and social services programs are ill-equipped to handle this need. Moreover, long-standing racial health inequities and the stigma associated with using social services will persist in the absence of significant systems-level change.

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an ambulance parked at the entrance of an emergency department

Racial Disparities Persist in Human Subjects Research

By Beatrice Brown

Human subjects research has long been plagued by racial inequality. While flagrant abuses have been curtailed, disparities have, unfortunately, persisted.

One area ripe for scrutiny is clinical trial enrollment. A 2018 study by William Feldman, Spencer Hey, and Aaron Kesselheim in Health Affairs documents racial disparities in trials that are exempt from typical requirements for informed consent from study participants.

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corridor with hospital beds

COVID-19 is a Perfect Storm of Hardship for US Immigrant Communities

By Amanda M. Gutierrez, Jacob Hofstetter, and Mary Majumder

The burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic are not borne equally. Immigrant communities, along with communities of color and people experiencing existing health inequities, are expected to face disproportionate effects.

This piece provides an overview of the spectrum of COVID-19-related risks – including socioeconomic hardship, vulnerability to infection, and challenges in access to care – faced by many of the 45 million immigrants in the U.S., especially those who are low-income or undocumented.

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