BY IRINA MATCHAVARIANI/ColumbiaMissourian
Medical ethicist and science writer Harriet Washington discussed longstanding myths about the bodies of Black people and the way those myths persist and contribute to health care inequities, especially during the pandemic.
Her talk Thursday night was hosted by MU’s Honors College.
“I will try to tie together far-ranging medical challenges that we are facing,” she said before providing an overview of the abuse African Americans have endured historically in the medical field that she has written about for decades. She emphasized that the Tuskegee Study, which people tend to know about, is far from an isolated case.
About 50 people attended the virtual keynote by Washington, a fellow at New York Academy of Medicine and Harvard University who is best known for her writing about the intersection of medicine and racism. Her 2007 book, “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present,” won a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Washington touched upon several new myths that surfaced after the outbreak of COVID-19. She cited reports about Black people being immune to the virus and it being a “white disease.” This notion was soon dismissed. Moreover, it soon became apparent that some groups, especially African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans, were being disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
In Boone County, according to the COVID-19 Information Hub, African Americans make up 9.7% of the total number of cases while they make up 8.8% of the county’s population. The dashboard, however, doesn’t provide data about mortality rates by race. However, in St. Louis County, the death rate of African Americans is 130.8 per 100,000 compared to 81.3 for Caucasians.
The reasons behind the disproportion, Washington said, are practical: Black communities have less access to health care, may not have a personal physician, live in more crowded settings and are more likely to have their concerns dismissed at a hospital.
Washington also said it is up to policymakers to be more specific in the conversation about who should receive the vaccine and in what order. People who clean floors, prepare meals and feed patients in hospitals are as exposed to the virus as frontline workers but are not prioritized, she said, while people who work in offices distant from exposure sometimes are.
The fact that they are not as highly educated, have lower income or are people of color is keeping us from devising policies that would help, she said.
Studies show that African Americans are the most hesitant about receiving the vaccine — only 42% of those surveyed said they were willing to do so, according to a December 2020 poll by the Pew Research Center.
Washington pointed out the deep-rooted mistrust African Americans have toward the health care system. Too often, they have heard stories in their families and communities about people who have suffered abuse in the name of medicine.
When asked what policymakers ought to be doing to address the legacy of the medical establishment’s infliction of harm on African Americans, she said, “I don’t pretend I have the answers.”
But she did have advice for what people can do to improve their own experience with the U.S. health care system.
“The single most important thing African Americans have to do is to get a personal physician,” Washington said in answer to a question. “Having your physician is key to having an advocate within the health care system. The doctor can speak for you when you can’t speak for yourself and can intervene when you are not getting the care you need.”
Posted by The non-Conformist