Responsibility

Addressing health equity in the age of COVID-19

In this Teal Talks episode, health care influencers Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith and Dr. Aletha Maybank discuss how the pandemic has impacted health equity and disparities

March 4, 2022

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COVID-19 shined a bright light on issues related to health equity. The disproportionate effects of the virus were found early in the pandemic, with higher rates of cases and severe outcomes among minority ethnic groups.

According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), in the U.K., Northern Ireland and the U.S., the risk for infection was twice as high for Black people and 1.5 times as high for Asian people than white people.

However, despite these somber figures, health disparities existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I often remind people that COVID-19 did not create any of the inequities that we’ve seen, but it did take advantage of them,” said Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, the director at Equity Research and Innovation Center at Yale School of Medicine.

Nunez-Smith, as well as Dr. Aletha Maybank, chief health equity officer and senior vice president of the American Medical Association, recently joined MSD’s Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet, assistant vice president for health equity, for Episode 4 of our Teal Talks series to discuss health equity: what it is, how we work towards it, and what it means to achieve it.

WATCH: Teal Talks Episode 4, Health equity and the opportunity to create change

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Transforming our systems and structures

Health inequities, described  by the World Health Organization as differences in health status or resources between populations, are created largely by social determinants of health — the social, economic and environmental conditions we all live our lives in. However, structural inequities — systems that organize power and resources unevenly across lines of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion and other forms of identity, are another major driver.

“There have been intentional policy decisions here in the United States, and dare I say around the world, that have systematically disadvantaged particular groups of people,” said Nunez-Smith. “We’re going to need intentionality around structures, around systems to really do that important redress.”

Health equity as a movement, not a moment

While the pandemic put a spotlight on health disparities, it’s critical to keep the attention and momentum going to make long-lasting change, said Maybank.

“We’re in a time of where the doors are open right now where we can talk about equity and we can talk about racism,” Maybank said. “But how do we set up the time right now to make sure that when that door does close — because oftentimes it will — what do we do and how do we move forward?”

The strategy to equity is one valuing all people equally, Maybank said, quoting Camara Jones, a renowned physician and civil-rights activist.  

“Understanding the historical context; how we got here as individuals, as institutions, and as a collective is really critical to understand how to move our equity strategy forward.”