Flax Lecture Series Speakers Highlight Racial Disparities in Covid-19 Crisis

Greg Millett and Jeff Crowley

Posted September 24, 2020

By Michael Pearson

Two public health experts offered Georgia Institute of Technology students, faculty, and other guests their insights into how racial disparities play a role in the Covid-19 pandemic and how movements like Black Lives Matter seek to address such discrepancies.

The speakers were Greg Millett, vice president and director for public policy at amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, and Jeff Crowley, program director for infectious disease initiatives at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. They told more than 200 virtual attendees during a video conference on Sept. 23 that they see echoes of the HIV epidemic in how minorities are suffering disproportionately from Covid-19.

The discussion was part of the Meg & Sam Flax Lecture Series, an endowed series in the School of Public Policy that seeks to allow students to hear perspectives on the proper roles for government in solving crucial problems from top scholars, policymakers, and practitioners.

In the 1980s, at the height of the HIV crisis, it was gay men suffering in an environment indifferent to their plight until activists began pushing back and forcing the medical and political establishment to accelerate research into treatments, Millett said.

Now, research shows that minorities, especially Black and Hispanic people, are suffering disproportionately from Covid-19. While the Black Lives Matter movement is predominantly a reaction to police violence, the speakers — both of whom were senior policy advisers in the administration of President Barack Obama — discussed how it also encapsulates concerns among Black people and their allies about disparate treatments in not only the justice system but the healthcare system and other areas, as well.

In fact, Millett said, the increased rate of infection and death among Black and Hispanic people is simply a manifestation of longstanding structural disparities in areas like income levels, education, employment, access to health care, and the lingering effects of residential segregation dating back more than 90 years.

They also discussed the nationwide Black Lives Matters protests over the summer, which studies have shown caused virtually no Covid-19 transmission, presumably because the events were outdoors and almost everyone wore masks.

Crowley predominantly addressed how to seek policy changes not from the street, but in the halls of Congress. He lauded peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters, saying their commitment reminded him of the AIDS activists whose work led to lasting policy change in the diagnosis and treatment of AIDS.

He commented on how opinion surveys showed many Americans supported the protesters, but that the challenge will be keeping those people in the struggle. Crowley also talked about the differences between street activism and lobbying, and how protests can make the job of a lobbyist harder. He also addressed nuts-and-bolts details of lobbying that could prove useful to policy students.

“This talk by two experts at the forefront of their field really helped to crystallize the disparities faced by minority communities not only when it comes to Covid-19, but also myriad other public health issues,” said Mark Zachary Taylor, associate professor in the School of Public Policy and organizer of the event. “This presentation epitomized what we are trying to do with the Meg and Sam Flax Speakers Series, and I hope it energized our students to get out there and find policy solutions to these problems.”

The School of Public Policy is a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.

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Michael Pearson