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The Impact of Systemic Racism During a Pandemic

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

By Isabel Pulgarin

On Feb. 16th, Barry’s Africana Studies program and the College of Arts and Sciences partnered with the nonprofit organization South Florida People of Color for a panel event. Panelists discussed the racial health disparities that have expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Pamela Hall from the Anti-Racism & Equity Coalition and director of the Africana Studies Program moderated the event.

On the panel was Dr. Bernard Ashby, a cardiologist and associate professor at Florida International University (FIU), and Dr. Cheryl Holder, an internal medicine physician, associate professor at FIU, and associate dean of their diversity, equity, inclusivity, and community.

Roni Bennett, executive director of South Florida People of Color, a non-profit organization that aims to bring together people in segregated communities, spoke at the event. She noted that the “land we stand on in Miami was founded upon exclusion and erasure of many indigenous people.” Bennett believes panel events like this are an important step toward dismantling systemic oppression.

After panelists were introduced, Hall held a moment of silence for the audience’s family and friends who passed away due to COVID-19. To further honor these losses, Hall conducted a libation, an African ritual of pouring liquid to honor the memory of dead ancestors. She poured the liquid into her plant as the audience uttered the name of a lost loved one.

The audience followed this by saying, “asè,” pronounced “ah-shay.” This is a West African, Yoruba word meaning “the power to make things happen” and “so it is.” It refers to the spiritual life force flowing through the world.

As the discussion about systemic racism began, Ashby noted that he predicted a pandemic would disproportionately affect black folks and folks at the “bottom of the hierarchy.” This was before the COVID-19 pandemic reached the shores of the U.S.

Holder agreed.

“[When] America gets a cold, black Americans and poor people get pneumonia,” said Holder. “And with Coronavirus, we die rapidly.”

These health discrepancies are due to the segregated living conditions of Black people, according to Holder. African Americans often live in especially polluted areas, where they can ingest particles that worsen infections.

The difference in how infections like COVID-19 affect the Black population versus the white population is evident in numbers. According to Ashby, African Americans are four times as likely to be hospitalized and three times as likely to be killed by COVID-19. In part, this is because of the pre-existing health conditions that they have, which can be worsened by COVID-19.

Regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, Ashby notes that the Black community is hesitant to receive it. The bigger issue, however, is that those in the African American community who want to receive the vaccine do not know how to do so.

“Dr. Holder and myself [have] been working on ways to increase access for individuals to get the vaccine,” said Ashby.

Ashby is working with Commissioner Watson of District 5 in Overtown to create more vaccination sites.

“Anytime [vaccines] come out, we are the last to get it, and so we need to understand that and take specific policies to address that,” said Ashby.

He adds that this lack of prioritization is what creates hesitancy toward getting the vaccine.

Holder called out Governor Ron DeSantis, who she said overrode the CDC vaccine recommendations and set the minimum age for priority vaccinations at 65 years old. Holder notes that most Black Floridians who died of COVID-19 died at a younger age.

At the end of the event, panelists attended a brief question and answer session. They discussed how to hold Florida officials accountable, the neglect of the homeless during the pandemic, and how to maintain a healthy immune system, by getting vitamin D.

Dr. Denise Lundy, a nurse practitioner and member of Barry’s coalition task force, briefly discussed the possible effects of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

Lundy notes that if you’re healthy overall, you should be fine with the vaccine, save for a bit of local cite irritation.

“You might have some soreness or irritation at the cite, symptoms of the common cold, but nothing overtly that you would be hospitalized or anything like that,” said Lundy.

After a thorough discussion on racial disparities in the time of COVID-19, Hall played the Black National Anthem to close out the meeting.

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