Race, racism and COVID-19 - this week's World Vs Virus podcast

A demonstrator wearing a protective mask attends a Black Lives Matter protest in the aftermath of protests against the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis, in Amsterdam, Netherlands, June 10, 2020. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC2G6H9FD78E

A demonstrator wearing a protective mask at a Black Lives Matter protest in Amsterdam. Image: REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw

Robin Pomeroy
Podcast Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Why are people of colour disproportionately hit by the virus?
  • Do racism and unconscious bias have a role?
  • Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University, talks to WVV.
  • Subscribe to World Vs Virus on Apple, Soundcloud or Spotify.
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Why are people of colour - ethnic minorities in Europe and North America - at greater risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19? There's not yet a definitive answer, but Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University, has some ideas.

"I don't think there's an agreed universal explanation for this," she tells this week's World Vs Virus podcast. "There are several hypotheses that have been suggested based on studies."


Among the most compelling hypotheses, Sridhar cites:

Social conditions: "Ethnic minorities are generally living in conditions where their housing conditions, which are in poor areas and more crowded areas, expose them to more risk daily."

Vitamin D deficiency: "There are increasing studies looking at vitamin D and the role of vitamin D deficiency. People who are darker require more vitamin D and are not getting it from sunlight, especially in northern countries."

Exposure of healthcare workers: Many people from what in the UK is known as the BAME community - Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic - work in healthcare. "Health workers have been put onto perhaps longer shifts, in riskier positions. The positions don't have as much access to PPE (personal protective equipment)."

"These are structural issues around discrimination and racism," Sridhar says.

"It makes people uncomfortable to talk about it, and is seen as being quite political, especially now with what's happening with the protests in the Black Lives movement.

"But I think we need to have these open discussions to get to the heart of what's happening, because there obviously is a big problem. We need to figure out why that is, and think about how we practically can start to address it."

Unconscious bias in health research might also play a role.

"When you have groups of individuals who all kind of look the same and approach problems the same, they tend to hire people, mentor people, support studies that fit with their world view," Sridhar says.


"We all need to reflect on our own biases, and...we all sometimes may not even think that we're making a choice. When we look at two CVs and we look at two studies we want to support, in terms of the validity of each, that actually reflects our bias."

She adds: "That's not only about ethnicity. It's also about gender. It's about class. It's about all the various bits that make people who they are. And making sure that you have people who often disagree with you in the room, that's the best way to actually make the decisions and fund studies that actually reflect what is really needed."


In the interview, Sridhar says why the (so far unknown) long-term consequences of the virus for survivors - the so-called "long-haulers" - could make COVID-19 "our generation’s polio", and why countries should not be looking to contain and manage the outbreak, but to eradicate it completely.


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