Covid-19 isn’t the only health crisis threatening our nation right now. CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta talks to epidemiologist Dr. Camara Jones about the serious impact of racism on public health. Jones is senior fellow at the Satcher Health Leadership Institute and the Cardiovascular Research Institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine. She also shares important guidance for protesters to help reduce the spread of coronavirus.
You can listen on your favorite podcast app, or read the transcript below.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: These are the sounds of protest.
For the past 10 days, people across the country have been demanding justice for the police killing of George Floyd.
And all of this in the midst of a pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of people, shoulder to shoulder, marching through the streets to fight a different — but no less serious — public health issue.
The intersection between race and health has been Dr. Camara Jones’ life’s work. She’s an epidemiologist and past president of the American Public Health Association. So, I turned to her to learn more about how these two are connected.
I will tell you now, she is hopeful that this system can be fixed.
I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent. And this is “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction.”
You know, the news cycle is fast and, you know, lately and everything feels like it has to be in these soundbites, but I just want to — I just want a dialogue with you a little bit and maybe just start off by asking you just how are you doing mentally, emotionally?
Dr. Camara Jones, adjunct associate professor of community health and preventative medicine, Morehouse School of Medicine: Right well, I’m — I have a slow, seething rage. And I’m wondering what in my toolbox — which tools that are in my personal toolbox I should be taking out to use in this moment. So I’m using some of them. But I think I need to use maybe one or two more.
We’re really at a huge crossroad. And so everybody recognizes, OK, this is the time for me to bring my energy into this and hopefully push us in the right direction.
Gupta: This is your life’s work. And we’re going to talk about this inflection point between the pandemic and the protests, just from a health standpoint. But just now, does now feel different to you? I mean, you look over the last — just look over the last few years, but then you can go back 60 years, you know. Does it feel different this time, Doctor?
Jones: Right. It does.
This is my life’s work, my life’s work has been on naming, measuring and addressing the impacts of racism on the health and well-being of the nation.
And, well, first of all, let me say what racism is. Racism is a system of structuring opportunity and of assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks, which is what we call race, that unfairly disadvantages some individuals and communities.
But every unfair disadvantage has its reciprocal, unfair advantage. So it also unfairly advantages other individuals and communities.
The national awakening to racism, first with the unexpected disproportionate impact of Covid-19, first on black Americans and black and brown Americans and black-brown Native Americans, and now you’re talking about Pacific Islanders in California.
But the way that Covid-19 uncovers structural racism — so that was not the first time that that’s happened in the nation, it happened with Hurricane Katrina, happened with the poison in the Flint water supply.
And now with the murder, the cold, unfeeling, with people around you condoning it, murder of George Floyd, which is on tape, that has awakened another whole group of people about racism.
This awakening, though, I know is not a permanent awakening unless we make it so.
Gupta: Right now, you do have people who are protesting for all the reasons that we’re talking about. And we are in the middle of a pandemic, which means a contagious virus is circumnavigating the whole globe.
One thing we’ve been told is to try and keep your distance, you know, try and reduce the spread. And so you have both of these things happening at the same time.
There’s no one better maybe in the world to ask than you about this. What do you tell people?
Jones: So I think that we have to protest. And if you are lucky enough to have an N95 mask that can also protect you, or if you have a two-layer mask or a mask that has a lining and then you can cut some coffee filter or something and put that in between the lining and the other part of the mask, that can protect you as well as protecting other people. Maybe you can get a face shield.
But I think that, that we have to signal for all to see that — that things are not OK right now. Things are very much not OK.
And then it’s about risk reduction, if you can stay 6 feet from other people, that’s fine. If you’re going to be chanting and shouting that you need to make sure you have your mask on to protect others and hopefully be surrounded by other people who are also wearing their masks.
Outside is better than inside. With the sun shining is a little bit better. Outside is better than inside because of the wind. You know, kind of dispersing stuff.
And I pray that people, that a lot of people won’t get sick, but if they do it’s not for a frivolous thing. It’s almost like walking into a war with the best armor that you can put on, recognizing that you are in a war and that you are taking on the risk of being in this war, but it’s better than letting the opposing forces silence you and smother you and kill you one by one.
We cannot be afraid to use that community action to push into a more just society. We have the possibility right now.
Gupta: It’s a war worth fighting.
Jones: It is. It is.
Gupta: I think about these two public health issues happening at the same time, because they’re both public health issues as various medical organizations have said. Racism, police brutality and then obviously, this coronavirus pandemic.
But racism, in and of itself, you have said, many have said, is a public health issue, in and of itself. Is it fixable? Is this a fixable problem?
Jones: Yes. It’s fixable. It’s going to take, it’s going to take intent. It’s not fixable in a casual way. It’s fixable by involving the people who are adversely impacted in decision-making by tapping into their knowledge and wisdom and lived experience and valuing their input.
But whenever I am trying to identify levers for intervention, I take that question with me so we could say, how is racism operating here in my child’s school or in my job or at the CDC [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or at CNN or in the United States or in my city or anywhere, right?
And you look at the who, what, when and where of decision-making. These are the structures. So, who sits around and decides even what the stories are going to be that we’re covering tomorrow? Or, you know, every time I ask to speak to a different audience, if I spend just 10 minutes sifting their issue through that, how is racism operating here, elements of decision-making. I can identify for them five to 10 different targets for their intervention.
The tricky thing is if everybody focused on just one target, then racism is such a fancy and deep and multi-armed octopus of a system, a Medusa thing, right? That if we all focused on one of the snakes or one of the arms, or one of the things, then it would just grow back something else.
So what it is going to take for us is an intent for all of us to take some aspect of racism and it as a collective, not this one person, we need to understand that collective action is power.
And with all of us working together, I believe that we can dismantle this system and put in its place a system in which all people can know and develop to their full potential.
Gupta: Wow, Doc, that is — that is inspiring. I mean, you know, I honestly, when I was going to sit down with you, I did not know where your head was going to be at on this. And if you had been very despondent and pessimistic, I would not have been surprised given the status of the world. But I’m looking at you. The listeners can’t see you right now but you’re, you’re smiling and you’re determined.
Jones: I’m determined. Yes, I’m determined. How else can we be? How else can we be? If we, if we sit back, we will have let this opportunity, this horrid convergence of pain and disease and pestilence and murder and disregard and dehumanization and devaluation that has tied itself up into this knot that we are faced with right now, that may be — a ball that’s rolling down the mountain on us.
But we have enough people to, not push it back up the mountain, but to push it aside and create space for something else.
Gupta: When you, when you think about the next couple of months, because, you know, sometimes, as you know better than most, you know, you do have these moments and there’s, there’s a lot of adrenaline and momentum. And then I know just from a news-cycle standpoint, things shift.
All of a sudden things shift again, right? And here’s what I worry about, besides the shift, is that people have given so much of themselves mentally, physically, maybe even having put themselves at risk of the virus being out there.
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Do you worry that it’ll manifest in mental health, you know, sort of toll or, or, you know, people get sick, they start to feel sick, they, they go home, they get somebody else sick within their within their household or whatever. How do you, how would you talk to somebody at that point?
It’s a balance. Life is a balance. Life is risk-reward.
Jones: I would say that, when you watch geese flying, flying north or flying south, you see them flying in a “v” formation. And they fly in that “v” formation because the goose at the front is breaking the wind for the one behind, who are breaking the wind for the ones behind and the ones behind.
And I used to worry about that lead goose, like what happens when that lead goose gets tired? Do they just fall to the ground and they fly off someplace random? But no, they don’t. They fly back into the flock and another goose takes the lead. And that is how geese fly far, right?
So, what we need to do, is we need to either find or create our flock. We need to decide in which direction are we traveling and then we need to take turns in terms of leadership.
So even if you feel tired, hang with the flock. They will break the wind for you for a while, but don’t fall off somewhere. Don’t let the flock get smaller or sad or despondent. They need you there, even in the back. And then it’ll be your turn to take the lead again.
And if we can share that leadership and — but we can stay together and community. And if we can agree on the direction we’re going, I think that we can get some place. I really do. I really do. I’m not just sort of thinking it. I really do.
Gupta: Dr. Camara Jones. I will treasure these conversations. Thank you.
I learn something from you each time, and I don’t say that lightly. I really mean it. So, thank you.
Like Dr. Jones says, we are facing systemic racial problems not just in society but in public health, as well. Yes, it’s an uphill battle, but it’s one worth fighting.
If you’re weighing the health risks of taking to the streets during a pandemic, do remember to wear your mask and wash your hands frequently. Avoid vulnerable friends and family afterward. Be safe.
We’ll be back Monday. Thanks for listening.
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