The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study hosted a webinar Tuesday addressing the connections between obesity, COVID-19, and systemic racism.
Two panelists at the event — Harvard Chan School and Radcliffe Institute professor Sara N. Bleich and University of California at Irvine Associate Professor Sabrina A. Strings — discussed how slavery-era inequities are linked to modern health disparities, higher obesity, and disproportionately high COVID-19 mortality rates among Black Americans. The event was part of “Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery,” an initiative University President Lawrence S. Bacow launched last November.
Strings addressed recent claims linking obesity to COVID-19 mortality rates between racial groups, which she said present an incomplete picture. A “mere eight percentage point disparity” in obesity rates exists between Black and white Americans, Strings said.
“The problem is not obesity, the problem is slavery,” she said.
To highlight this historical link, Strings gave the example of J. Marion Sims, who performed forced gynecological experimentation on enslaved women.
“The field of medicine is invested in using Black cells, Black body parts, Black tissues for the advancement of medical progress, but not Black whole human beings,” she said.
Strings critiqued the Body Mass Index — a common calculation used to measure obesity — and disputed the legitimacy of research used to create it. She added that she believes “very powerful white men” pushed the use of BMI in medicine.
“Black people were excluded from the very studies that are now attempting to discipline them,” Strings said. “BMI cannot account for the 3.2 times higher rate of COVID-19 deaths amongst Black Americans.”
Bleich — the second panelist — gave a presentation on the ties among COVID-19, obesity, and systemic racism from a public health perspective.
According to Bleich, obese COVID-19 patients are twice as likely to be hospitalized and 50 percent more likely to die. She added that researchers are not entirely certain why this is the case.
“Here's what we do know,” she said. “There are these longstanding structural inequities that are underlining why we are seeing higher rates of COVID-19, higher rates of obesity, amongst Black and brown populations.”
Bleich said that since Black people are more likely to be employed in essential industries like nursing homes and grocery stores, they are also more likely to interact with infected people. She added that these industries are also less likely to provide health or life insurance.
“We know that if you are a Black American, you have fewer economic and educational opportunities as compared to whites,” she said. “What that does is confer fewer financial resources, which then increases social risks like food insecurity, housing instability, limited access to transportation, and that list sort of goes on and on.”
Bleich also called for the government to expand nutrition assistance programs, bring Medicaid to every state, and pass additional fiscal stimulus bills to address the health crisis.
“A lot of thought needs to go into how we frame these issues around COVID-19, around obesity, to ensure that programs that stand to help people the most can actually get pushed forward,” she said.