Lepage Center’s Decolonizing Series Hosts Final Event

Barber spoke about racism in the public health system in the United States.

Courtesy of Villanova University

Barber spoke about racism in the public health system in the United States.

Keely Dumouchel, Staff Writer

The year-long virtual Decolonizing Series from the Albert Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at the University came to an end on Wednesday, April 21 with a talk from Sharrelle Barber about decolonizing COVID-19. Barber is Assistant Professor in the Dornsife School of Health’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and the Urban Health Collaborative at Drexel University. She talked about the racism in the public health system in the United States and how that was highlighted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Barber used Camara Jones’ definition of racism to put her talk into context. Her definition says, “racism is a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks (which is what we call ‘race’), that unfairly disadvantages some individuals and communities, unfairly advantages other individuals and communities and saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.”


In her talk, Barber wanted to make the point that it was important to decolonize the narrative of why minorities were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, which would then decolonize the knowledge production of and our responses to institutionalized racism. She began her talk by discussing the racial disparities in the United States as a whole and how it has seeped into American institutions such as the health care system. 


She then discussed how white Americans have had advantages that helped them in this pandemic, while minorities have not had the same privileges because of the practices of redlining, which is the disinvestment in residents of certain areas based on ethnicity or race, along with the everyday racism that BIPOC face. Some examples she explained in context of the pandemic were that many students did not have access to laptops or internet to attend classes through Zoom when school went online and that many BIPOC were turned away by hospitals when they were experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. 


To understand this inequality, Barber performed research titled “Covid-19 in Context 2021,” which highlights the racism, segregation and racial inequities in Philadelphia during the pandemic. She gave black individuals, including undergraduate and graduate students, the ability to share their pandemic stories in order to amplify their experiences and show the public how these systemic problems are affecting them. She also used statistics to explain the racial inequities. For example, she mentioned that the life-expectancy of black males decreased by three years in the year 2020 as a whole. She also explained that the death rates from COVID-19 were 70% higher in more segregated residential areas, shown through racial residential segregation and redlining in Philadelphia and its corresponding COVID-19 cases. 


Barber finished her talk by discussing how citizens can rectify these deep-seeded racial issues in America. This could be done by giving people a platform to share their experiences on how systemic racism has affected them, passing legislation to fight these inequalities, providing reparations and doing antiracist work in order to actively fight racism. She emphasized that silence is no longer an option, the importance of participating in elections and that Black Americans deserve a radical restructuring of American institutions, not just the health care system.


After Barber’s talk, there was a Q&A portion facilitated by Elizabeth Kolsky, who is the Director of the Lepage Center. Many participants asked interesting and thought-provoking questions about how the talk related to the COVID-19 vaccine distribution and why how this year has led to taking action. In terms of vaccine distribution, Barber said that “racism isn’t the main driver… access is,” meaning that Black Americans do not have the same access to vaccine centers as white Americans. 


When asked why this year has led to a turning point, Barber shared that the pandemic exposed these racial inequities in public health, which showed these deep-rooted issues in every aspect of society and highlighted that it cannot be ignored anymore.


As the Lepage Center Decolonizing Series came to an end, many issues in art, the pandemic and history itself were brought to the attention of students and faculty at the University. If interested in watching any videos from the decolonizing series, they were all recorded and posted to the Lepage Center YouTube channel.