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 Merck’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.
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.”
About MerckFor more than a century, Merck, a leading global biopharmaceutical company known as MSD outside of the United States and Canada, has been inventing for life, bringing forward medicines and vaccines for many of the world's most challenging diseases. Through our prescription medicines, vaccines, biologic therapies and animal health products, we work with customers and operate in more than 140 countries to deliver innovative health solutions. We also demonstrate our commitment to increasing access to health care through far-reaching policies, programs and partnerships. Today, Merck continues to be at the forefront of research to advance the prevention and treatment of diseases that threaten people and communities around the world - including cancer, cardio-metabolic diseases, emerging animal diseases, Alzheimer's disease and infectious diseases including HIV and Ebola.
Learn more about the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in their Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Progress Report.
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