The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the devastating impact that racism can have on health in the U.S., said Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Dr. Fauci made his powerful comments during a virtual commencement speech for the Emory College of Arts and Sciences on Sunday, during which he also received the Emory President’s Medal for his public leadership.
“COVID-19 has shone a bright light on our own society’s failings,” Dr. Fauci told the graduates. “Our country’s experience with COVID-19 has not only upended our own lives, but it has uncovered a stark reality and failing of our own society: the unacceptable disparities in health experienced by minority groups, especially African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans.”
People of color have a higher risk for contracting COVID-19, partly because they hold a disproportionate share of high-risk jobs as essential workers, Dr. Fauci said. And they also have a significantly higher risk for developing serious complications and dying from the virus due to underlying conditions.
“This is because minorities, in general, have a greater incidence and prevalence of underlying comorbid medical conditions,” Dr. Fauci said, such as hypertension, chronic lung illnesses, and diabetes. But that’s not generally due to some genetic or biological reasons related to their race, Dr. Fauci noted, but rather to socioeconomic factors and conditions that can profoundly affect a person’s health.
“Very few of these comorbidities have racial determinants,” Dr. Fauci explained. “Almost all [of them] relate to the social determinants of health, dating back to disadvantageous conditions that some people of color find themselves in from birth, regarding the availability of an adequate diet, access to health care, and the undeniable effects of racism in our society.” Other social determinants of health include housing, education, income, economic and job opportunities, pollution, neighborhood safety, and violence, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
Dr. Fauci’s comments echo an April announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which officially declared racism a public health threat. “The pandemic illuminated inequities that have existed for generations and revealed for all of America a known but often unaddressed, epidemic impacting public health: racism,” said CDC director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., M.P.H. As part of the announcement, the CDC made a commitment to prioritize researching and addressing the racial inequities that can affect people’s health.
But it’s not just about COVID-19—people of color experience higher rates of negative health outcomes than white people do across a range of conditions. For instance, Black people are at higher risk of dying from illnesses like colorectal cancer and skin cancer than white people, as well as dying during childbirth. And a growing amount of research suggests that the chronic stress and physiological trauma of racism have serious cumulative effects on the mental health and biology of those who experience it.
As Dr. Fauci pointed out in his speech, racism and racial inequities run deep in our society. And they’ll continue to have profound effects on people’s health long after the pandemic—and as long as we allow them to exist. Finally, he asked the graduates not to let the memory of this infectious disease that disproportionately hospitalized and killed people of color fade after we return to “some form” of normality. “Righting this wrong will take a decades-long commitment,” he said. “I strongly urge you to be part of that commitment.”