Video: Experts discuss racial disparities and equity conversations in Michigan

A panel of experts at the 2021 Michigan State of Reform Health Policy Conference addressed how equity legislation in Michigan needs to take importance and how intentionality in equity discussions is crucial to reform.  


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The panelists included Dr. Renée Branch Canady, CEO of Michigan Public Health Institute, Debbie Edokpolo, director of health equity and social justice at Michigan Primary Care Association and Dr. Debra Furr-Holden, C.S Mott endowed professor of public health at Michigan State University. 

The panelists first discussed how to break down barriers through policy. Furr-Holden used an analogy of a river to illustrate the relationship between policy and health equity. 


Image: Dr. Debra Furr-Holden


She said the excess COVID-19 cases within the Black community were the result of working in majority working class and essential jobs, leading to more exposure to the virus. This disparity starts upstream with systemic inequity in job opportunities and education and a lack of equitable legislation. 

“There was nothing magical about being African American. It was what being African American gave rise to, which is the systematic and structural inequality that shows up in things like being over represented in a high-demand, low-wage job.”

The social determinants of health are then affected by these systemic challenges and laws. According to Furr-Holden, the community one lives in and their circumstances greatly impact their long-term health.

“What we now understand is that a person’s ZIP code is as strong if not a stronger predictor of how long they can expect to live and the quality of life they can expect to live as their genetic code.”

The panel then discussed how these conversations on systemic racism are impacting the state and federal legislatures. According to Canady, they are not yet impacting change on a deep and meaningful level. She said that these problems are complex and will take time to solve. 

Canady emphasized the importance of bringing intentionality to any conversation about addressing disparities at a policy level. She said one needs to challenge their assumptions and build systems that allow everyone to share power. 

“How are we as leaders setting a tone that allows for change and gets us out of the business-as-usual space. Police steeped in business-as-usual have not benefited us from a population health and a population well-being perspective.”

The panel also talked about the importance of data collection to better understand where disparities lie and how their work is impacting the community. Furr-Holden said that in the first 2.5 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, 0% of data was missing on the age of those getting vaccinated due to eligibility enforcement. However, 44% of that same data was missing the race of those vaccinated, and 70% was missing ethnicity. 

The panelists then discussed the impact of the pandemic on equity. Edokpolo said the pandemic has brought many disparities into the public eye and has proven that health equity is not the reality. 

“Now it’s time that we had uncomfortable conversations. There needs to be this unlearning and relearning of what is appropriate, what we need to have and who needs to get what.”

According to the panelists, this momentum needs to continue to force meaningful change and to further spread this important dialog. 

“The only way that this is going to stay front and center is for like-minded people that are focusing on the needs of others [to] continue to say ‘excuse me, but…’”