Last month, we spoke with Dr. Robert Fullilove, Associate Dean for Community and Minority Affairs, Professor of Clinical Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University and the co-director of the Cities Research Group, where he’s researched the health of people from ethnic minority backgrounds, with a focus on infectious diseases and HIV. An expert on racial inequity in health care, Dr. Fullilove comes from a family of physicians and was an integral part of the Civil Rights movement from 1964 to 1968 alongside Martin Luther King Jr., and his work has even earned him a place in the Smithsonian.
Dr. Fullilove’s passion for art, science, and international affairs brought us a unique perspective on health inequalities in the time of COVID-19. Dr. Fullilove shared his thoughts on racial disparities in the United States and abroad, comparing COVID-19 with HIV and explaining how pharmaceutical companies have a role in bridging gaps in care.
Read below for some key insights, which have been edited for clarity.
“The biggest issue that I see is the fact that now, we are at the point where we can manage COVID-19 quite well once it’s diagnosed. However, there are significant delays in diagnoses and results in testing centers that minorities have access to, which is really the difference between life and death. Not to mention the lack of hospitals in minority communities in the first place creates even more issues.”
“What’s more, a lot of what is occurring in minority communities with COVID-19 is because of the fear of high costs deterring folks from seeking out the care that they need.”
“Most importantly though, is the fact that it also comes down to political will or lack thereof. We have all the data and know about all the problems affecting these communities and how to solve it and it’s still not working out so well for us. The impact of COVID-19 on minority communities in America is a functioning tragedy.”
On Potential Solutions
“There has been so much ongoing dialogue and literature that describe in incredible detail obvious, easy solutions that can be implemented in less than seven shakes. However, in health and the health sciences, we presume that everyone is rational and logical, meaning that if we provide enough information, most people will make rational health-based decisions.”
“But that’s not the case: we have the information, we’ve already explained time and time again on how to wear masks, where to get tested, etc., but the science has failed. And that’s not a new thing; in the U.S. 96% of adults understand what HIV is, how to contract it, and how to prevent it, however, we still face around 40,000 new cases every year. Why is that? Because it’s not about logic; it’s about emotion. There needs to be an effort to share a message, to sell an emotion or behavior. This is where science and communications comes together.”
On the Difference Between HIV and COVID-19
“When HIV first hit communities of color, it no longer became a pandemic of national urgency. With COVID-19, it’s everyone’s problem. The disease does not care about race or class; we’ve seen world leaders and local government organizers get sick, making it clear that this is something that can’t be ignored by certain groups.”
On How Pharma Can Make a Difference
“Speak to the gatekeepers of the communities you’re trying to reach. Find out what would be useful and ensure that the representation on your end matches with the community you are trying to help. Additionally, work with charity hospitals in the respective communities who have an obligation to provide community health needs assessments under the Affordable Care Act. Work closely with these hospitals and a board of community advisors to create and vet a plan of action because that will truly make a sustainable and significant impact.”