Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, we began hearing that the virus doesn’t discriminate based on race or ethnicity. While that may be true at the cellular level, Black and Hispanic people are four times more likely than white people to be hospitalized with coronavirus, and almost three times more likely to die from it, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—so something must be discriminating.

In an online panel discussion today sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI), experts in public health, diversity and journalism will delve into the stark racial disparity in COVID cases—perhaps the clearest illustration yet that the medical racism and unequal access to health care woven through our nation’s history is still taking lives and fomenting doubts about a vaccine that could end the pandemic.  

“We may all be in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat—for people of color, some of us aren’t even in boats,” said panelist Stephen B. Thomas, a professor of health policy management and director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity in the UMD School of Public Health.

The problem is complex, constructed from socioeconomic disparities ranging from diet to stress that lead to poorer health (including more risk from the virus that causes COVID-19); in addition, underserved communities lack access to basic health care services to treat the resulting illnesses, and trust in the medical system has been damaged by a history of abusive medical practices and current bias against people of color in the health care system.

Understanding and solving such issues are necessary to have a just society, but the raging pandemic adds urgency because of surveys that show greater hesitancy among African Americans to take COVID-19 vaccines, said Carlton Green, ODI director of diversity training and education. They’re thinking about well-documented instances of medical abuse of Black people over the centuries, or their own experiences of having their concerns dismissed in health care settings.

“It is important to name this problem, and essentially validate for people of color who are skeptical of the vaccine that they’re not crazy to have these doubts,” Green said. “What I hope this discussion does is give people information to make informed choices.”

That’s a more culturally astute way of engaging than simply assuring Black people, “The vaccine is safe, so take it,” Green said—and it’s necessary work.

Panelist DeNeen Brown, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Maryland and journalist for The Washington Post for more than 35 years, will discuss examples from this grim strand of America medical history that she has studied in her reporting.

"They include the story of J. Marion Sims, a doctor who performed experimental surgeries on enslaved Black women—without their informed consent and without anesthesia," Brown said. "I will also talk about the 'Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,' a secret experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service to study the progression of the deadly venereal disease—without treatment. That experiment went on for 40 years, secretly. Doctors in the experiment had a cure. But they watched many of these Black men die. It was a reporter who broke this story in 1972. Only after the story ran did the United States government stop the experiment."

Jazmin Pichardo, ODI assistant director diversity training an education will also participate in today’s panel.

Thomas, whose research on increasing health equity includes engaging with Black communities in comfortable environments like churches and barbershops, said the message is seemingly being heard—but now he’s worried that vaccine shortages and problems registering for shots could re-harden attitudes about the unfairness of the system.

“People at my barbershop who were saying, ‘Hell no, I’m not taking a vaccine’ a few months ago are now saying ‘maybe,’ and the people who were saying ‘maybe’ are now saying, ‘Where do I sign up?’” Thomas said. “Let’s not lose all that progress by doing this badly.”