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Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin

Dr. Regina Benjamin served as U.S. Surgeon General under former President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2013.

A Former U.S. Surgeon General Says ‘We Don’t Want To Blame Victims’

So far in Chicago, black people comprise 60% of COVID-19 deaths — about double the percentage of the city’s black population. Cities around the country are reporting similar racial inequities.

Dr. Regina Benjamin served as U.S. Surgeon General under President Barack Obama. Today she is a member of the American Heart Association board of directors and is educating people on why the pandemic has a disproportionate impact on black, brown and rural communities. She spoke with WBEZ on Friday.

Benjamin said people in those communities are more likely to have underlying health conditions like heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. They are less likely to have access to quality healthcare and are more likely to work unstable or frontline jobs. Benjamin said it’s urgent to address these inequities.

MOORE: We don’t have accurate numbers for Latinos both in deaths and confirmed COVID-19 cases, but we know that the diabetes rates and hypertension rates for Latinos are similar to the rates in the black community. Do you think this community is at risk too?

BENJAMIN: Very much so. As we look back on this, the numbers will probably be different. But we do know that these conditions are in the Hispanic community just as it is in the African American community. We also know health disparities have been around for awhile. We’ve learned the social determinants really matter. The death rate with less than 12 years of education is two and half times that of those with a high school diploma. We know that your financial health is directly related to your physical health. Access to health care, clean air, clean water all contribute to it. And many of our communities don’t have these. The research also shows us that your zip code is a better predictor than your genetic code for health and longevity.

MOORE: There has been a lot of victim-blaming and shaming, including by the current surgeon general. Can you talk about the barriers to health equity that black and brown communities face?

BENJAMIN: When I was Surgeon General, I released the first ever national prevention strategy. One of the pillars of that strategy was to try to eliminate health disparities. We don’t want to blame victims. One of the things I hope we come out of this entire crisis with on the other end is a little more empathy. We’re seeing a lot of people talk about the economy and how difficult it is. It’s very stressful not knowing where your next paycheck is coming from, not knowing how to pay your rent, whether you can put food on the table. If you do have a job right now and your kids are at home, how do you handle daycare? These are very stressful, very real things. But people in poor communities, that single mom has been dealing with these same issues for a very long time. I hope we come out of this having a better appreciation with what poor people are going through and [when] we make public policy, we can remember what it felt like.

MOORE: The one thing I’ve thought about during this pandemic is the old expression: America catches a cold and black America catches pneumonia. How have you thought about these past couple weeks and the national discourse around inequities?

BENJAMIN: This isn’t the first time. We saw this with [Hurricane] Katrina. It was all in your face and we thought we learned a lot, but we have a lot more to learn. Oftentimes, we don’t want to acknowledge things that are hard to see. And it’s hard to see those faces of people dying. But it makes us stop and think. So I hope, as a nation, we certainly can have that empathy, have that understanding and not blame the victim. But look for solutions. When we improve the health of all of us — the health of the entire community — we’ll be a healthier nation.

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.

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