April 14, 2021 - Professor Ruqaiijah Yearby of the Saint Louis University School of Law was the most recent speaker in the 2021 University of Houston Law Center Spring Workshop Series, “Race, Social Change, and the Law,” last week.
Yearby presented a paper she co-authored with Professor Seema Mohapatra that will be published in the Emory Law Journal, entitled “Systemic Racism, The Government’s Pandemic Response, and Racial Inequities in COVID-19,” which illustrated how the pandemic response has been racialized. Some examples included how certain government leaders called COVID-19 the “China virus,” blamed migrants for an increase in spreading it, claimed African-Americans didn’t wash their hands, and inequitably allocated resources.
Yearby examined how most of the inequities seen in the pandemic response are a direct result of systemic racism, which is a complex array of social structures, beliefs and interactions that work to advantage white people and disadvantage racial and ethnic minorities. The article examines the way systemic racism influenced the government pandemic response, which then trickled into resource allocation and led to an outcome of disparity.
She said structural racism, or the ways the law is used to perpetuate systemic racism, also played a role in health laws during the pandemic.
“It’s about a structure set up to disadvantage certain groups,” she said.
The treatment of essential workers was a central theme in Yearby’s analysis of the inequities in the pandemic response. She noted that essential workers did not have the privilege of working from home and were only told to consider staying home, but that would of course mean no pay and potentially loss of employment. The alternative was to risk their health and the health of others.
Yearby specifically cited essential workers in the food and agricultural industry, particularly meat and poultry workers. She pointed out that they do not get equal access to employment protections and resources such as PPE, and this impact doesn’t just affect them, but entire communities.
Yearby said the way to address these disparities is to not only offer paid sick leave but also to end punitive attendance policies. Additionally, she said racial and ethnic minorities should lead efforts to reform policies.
Another key point in Yearby’s presentation was the inequitable resource allocation that occurred during the pandemic. She noted hospitals serving mainly white patients often received secure, better access to ventilators and testing materials, and vaccine doses were slow to get to communities that are made up of predominantly racial and ethnic minorities.
During the question-and-answer session, students and faculty raised points around labor movements, geography, racism over the years and holding leaders accountable.
“Racism is a public health crisis,” she said. “We need to equitably allocate resources.”
Yearby, the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Institute for Healing Justice & Equity, specializes in racial disparities in health care, the political economy of health care, and social justice in medical research, and has dedicated her career to the improvement of the lives of vulnerable populations by addressing the lack of equal access to quality health care. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan, the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and the Georgetown University Law Center. She previously worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and her work has been cited in numerous publications, including the Oxford Handbook of Bioethics.