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Hastings Center President Speaks on Systemic Racism, Health Inequities, and Covid-19

In two recent talks, one at the National Institutes of Health and the other at the Washington-based Cosmos Club, Hastings Center president Mildred Solomon discussed the connection between systemic racism, other social determinants of health, and health inequities.

“Covid-19’s terribly unequal toll on African Americans, Native Americans, and the Latinx community has dramatically illuminated what we’ve known for decades,” she said at a virtual public discussion at the National Institutes of Health on October 5. “The convergence of the health effects of Covid-19 with the growing public recognition of what it means to be Black in America could create an opportunity to address health inequities on a scale we haven’t seen since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.”

In her talk at the Cosmos Club on September 21, Solomon gave data on racial disparities, including life expectancy by zip codes in several cities showing that the life expectancy in the wealthiest neighborhoods was as much as 30 years higher than in poorer neighborhoods. “Cities with the widest gaps in life expectancy were those most segregated by race and ethnicity,” she said.

“People like to think that the major problems in a pandemic are whether and how to quarantine, or how to ration scarce resources, like ventilators, but we should also see the opportunity this pandemic gives us to recognize longstanding health inequities that can only be fixed through more enlightened laws and policies: a living wage, high quality schools, the elimination of lead contaminated housing, access to healthy foods and green recreational spaces,” Solomon continued. “If we truly want to build back better, we must consider the ethical imperative of addressing these social determinants of ill health.” 

She went on to answer a variety of questions about other ethical issues raised by the current pandemic, including how to assure that a Covid-19 vaccine will be allotted fairly. “Once we have a vaccine, if we get one, there surely will not be enough for all of us at first,” she said. “Bioethicists and public health professionals are developing guidelines right now for prioritizing who should be vaccinated first.” Watch her talk here.