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Structural Racism and COVID19: The Political Divide, Re-Opening the Society and Health Impacts on People of Color

Berkeley experts from the Othering and Belonging Institute discuss how to build a racially just and healthy society moving forward

Berkeley Conversations
UC Berkeley panelists discuss racial justice, and the impact of COVID-19 on people of color. (UC Berkeley video)

At a time when the pandemic is being politicized, a panel of UC Berkeley scholars called on Friday for bridging among different social and racial groups to help recognize their common interests and to emerge from COVID-19 more unified.

During the livestreamed Berkeley Conversations event, “Structural Racism and COVID19: The Political Divide, Re-Opening the Society and Health Impacts on People of Color,” the panelists urged public health officials and academic researchers to collaborate with community members to help build trust in institutions and to build more positive health outcomes.

“As we’re dealing with the polarized nature of a lot of what’s going on, it’s important that we listen to all sides, similar to how we need to listen to communities, listen more to marginalized groups, and make sure we do not have an elitist approach to what we’re doing,” said Mahasin Mujahid, associate professor of epidemiology.

Mujahid added that significant racial disparities in COVID-19 casualties dramatically highlights the structural racism fueling these inequities.

Cristina Mora, co-director of the Institute for Governmental Studies, shared data that revealed significant differences of opinion among Californians from different racial backgrounds and political leanings over questions about the threats posed by COVID-19.

The data found that politically left-leaning people and people of color were more concerned about the pandemic than white people and conservatives, but also that race was a stronger driver in people’s responses than politics.

“In some analyses, we found that even the most liberal whites expressed less concern about COVID-19 than some of our most conservative Black and Latinx respondents,” Mora said.

A likely explanation for that finding, she said, was that people of color are far more likely to be exposed to the virus because of the type of work they do.

Othering & Belonging Institute Director john a. powell said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the moment because of some positive trends he’s observed. He cited incidents where Republican officials were rolling back the reopening of parts of their economies due to surges in virus cases.

He said different groups have to be deliberate about building and strengthening bridges with one another and bring in as many people as possible for the sake of developing empathy for others.

“A couple years ago, people would say we would never unite unless there was some galactic enemy. Like, maybe the Martians would come, and we would all unite against the Martians. And then COVID-19 happened,” said powell. “It’s not a Martian, but it’s pretty close.”