UNL professor looks at the racial disparities in health care

Published: Oct. 30, 2020 at 6:14 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Racial and ethnic minorities have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Illness and death from COVID-19 is more common among African-Americans, American Indians and Hispanic and Latino groups. Experts say disparities in health care are contributing to the medical racism problem. A University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor says this kind of racism has been around for centuries.

When Deirdre Cooper Owens taught a class in the history of pandemics, her students learned about the 1918 influenza. And it sounded familiar.

Cooper Owens said, “Wearing masks became a part of the movement to protect people.” She said, “There were anti-maskers during that time. There were people who were concerned about business and sports. And this was literally 100 years ago. And my students started to see, oh, wait, we have been here before.”

As a historian, Cooper Owens has studied medical racism, a problem that she says is evident yet today. It contributes to the higher rates of illness and death from COVID-19 among racial and ethnic minorities.

“Black people tend to be disproportionately poor,” said Cooper Owens. “They also do the front line work. In addition to, sometimes you go into places, and you are not treated respectfully, or given the kinds of care, medication that you need. It literally was the perfect recipe for disaster when it came to black communities, brown communities, and in the Midwest, I think we see this in Indian country, and particularly with the Navajo Nation.”

Cooper Owens is a frequent speaker at universities and medical schools nationwide as they struggle to reverse medical racism and it’s consequences.

“I can educate people, I can provide context,” said Cooper Owens. “And that’s the wonderful thing about being a historian. It’s not about big names and dates and those kinds of things. It’s how do I help someone understand the context so that they are now equipped with the most accurate information that they have to be able to make better and smarter choices?”

The work of Deirdre Cooper Owens was used as a reference for an episode of the HBO series, “Lovecraft Country.” Her book, “Medical Bondage”, looks back at the exploitation of African-American girls and women throughout history.

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