Finding Our Past in Today’s Dilemmas

[Post by our host, Brian Southwell]

We face choices every day. All of those choices are constrained by the circumstances in which we live, but nonetheless we often have opportunities to look at the world in one of several different ways.

Image: New York Public Library archives

On our show, we have been making choices about what topics and people to feature for our listeners. Given the weight of public health and social justice concerns on the hearts of many listeners, more often than not we have focused on those topics in some way in recent months. Sometimes, we have an opportunity to look at how those topics intersect.

Racial disparities in experience with disease offer precisely such an intersection. Headlines have noted striking disparities between demographic groups for months. In April, for example, New York Times Magazine noted the “Deadly Racial Disparities of COVID-19 in America” in writing about the disproportional effects of COVID-19 on Black Americans. Such headlines alone do not tell us the whole story, though. They don’t explain why we are seeing such disparities.

Recently, Health Affairs published an essay on its website that offers explanations, explanations that hold important implications for the future of public health and medicine. We had the chance to interview the author of that piece, LaShawn Glasgow, about her work on our show. LaShawn is a colleague of mine at RTI International and we share interests in ways that evaluation research can improve societal health. At the same time, we have had different experiences living in America. It would have been a mistake if we had overlooked that fact, and we were able to talk about differences in not only our individual experiences but also between the narratives of various groups of Americans.

Our conversation, which was in some ways about the events of 2020, ended up focusing on stories that are hundreds of years old. To understand contemporary public health in a country like the United States we need to understand social and political history. Without that interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary lens, we would be missing important pieces of the story.

As we think about where we are together at this moment in time, we have substantial reason for worry and concern. Yet it is also possible to see this period in our history as a tremendous opportunity to work with researchers to put everyday life in context, and to make better sense of it by understanding how it is connected to — if not the same as — everyday life under different skies. That wider view offers the advantage of greater truth, and with some luck can offer us some greater hope as well.

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