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Villarosa highlights racism in healthcare

Health coverage journalist and author Linda Villarosa recently spoke to the Brandeis community about racism in healthcare in a webinar hosted by Professor Wangui Muigai (AAAS/HSSP/HIST).

“In the United States, we spend the most on healthcare than any other country,” Villarosa said during her talk. She emphasized the irony of this and how surprising this is, explaining how the infant mortality rates in the U.S. are higher than any other developed country, and that life expectancy is declining. “Money can buy healthcare, but it cannot buy health.” 

Villarosa’s expertise at the intersection of public health and social rights has given her insight into this problem. “Our inequality [in healthcare] is leading us to our poor health outcomes,” she explained. 

Villarosa raised concerns with the inequality faced by Black Americans in particular. Among many examples, she cited that Black babies are almost 2.5 times more likely to die than white babies are. Furthermore, maternal mortality is highly prevalent in Black communities; a Black woman is three to four times more likely to die due to complications in pregnancy than a white woman. 

And in light of the past year, Villarosa added that Black people have contracted more cases of COVID-19 than other racial groups, either due to exposure from being in frontline occupations or proximity to towns that have had higher rates of positive cases. 

A misguided notion that arises in response to these inequitable health outcomes is that Black people are to blame for their own health-related adversities. According to Villarosa, skeptics of healthcare inequality claim, “It’s [Black people’s] fault. [They are] not taking care of [themselves], [They are] not educated, [they are] not eating right, [they are] not exercising … [they are] using drugs; whatever it is, it’s always blaming Black people.” 

She counters the skeptic belief with examples of members of the Black community who are healthy and educated, yet still face instances of racism in healthcare. 

Dr. Susan Moore, the president and CEO of an Indian hospital, died of COVID-19 at IU Health North hospital. Her persistent complaints of excruciating pain were not taken seriously, and doctors were pushing to send her home, Villarosa explained. In a scathing Facebook post, Moore implored viewers to see the racial injustice unfolding in healthcare, saying “this is how Black people die.” 

While Villarosa maintains the importance of healthy lifestyle habits, she emphasizes that the answer to resolving healthcare inequalities in America does not lie in changing the habits of members within marginalized communities. 

She describes prior correlatory evidence in the lived experience of racism and poor health outcomes. Weathering, or the phenomenon of racial, gender and economic inequality fueling chronic stress and accelerated aging, is one example of the societal and structural impacts on Black Americans. 

“Racism, not race, becomes a risk factor for health,” Villarosa says. 

Despite disproportionate instances of loss and tragedy in marginalized communities, Villarosa sees reasons to believe that progress is being made. 

She enthusiastically introduced an example of activism and change at the medical school level. An organization called White Coats for Black Lives has created a manifesto for addressing and recognizing racial biases in healthcare. They hope to dispel myths that Black people are physically different from other racial groups, Villarosa explained. 

Additionally, the American Medical Association has stepped forth in admitting their own complicity in racial biases and has provided “robust and direct” ways about addressing healthcare inequalities in an apology statement, says Villarosa. 

“Conversations are in the air,” Villarosa says. She leaves the audience with a final thought: “Caring makes a different, learning makes a difference and understanding makes a difference.”
Villarosa has written for the Science Times and was the executive editor for Essence Magazine. She is the author of several books and has been nominated for the Lambda Literary Award in 2008. She is currently working on a book titled “Under the Skin.”

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