ARTICLE: Historical Insights on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, and Racial Disparities: Illuminating a Path Forward

AUTHORS: Lakshmi KrishnanS Michelle OgunwoleLisa A Cooper

JOURNAL: Ann Intern Med. 2020 Jun 5;M20-2223. doi: 10.7326/M20-2223. Online ahead of print.


The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is exacting a disproportionate toll on ethnic minority communities and magnifying existing disparities in health care access and treatment. To understand this crisis, physicians and public health researchers have searched history for insights, especially from a great outbreak approximately a century ago: the 1918 influenza pandemic. However, of the accounts examining the 1918 influenza pandemic and COVID-19, only a notable few discuss race. Yet, a rich, broader scholarship on race and epidemic disease as a "sampling device for social analysis" exists. This commentary examines the historical arc of the 1918 influenza pandemic, focusing on black Americans and showing the complex and sometimes surprising ways it operated, triggering particular responses both within a minority community and in wider racial, sociopolitical, and public health structures. This analysis reveals that critical structural inequities and health care gaps have historically contributed to and continue to compound disparate health outcomes among communities of color. Shifting from this context to the present, this article frames a discussion of racial health disparities through a resilience approach rather than a deficit approach and offers a blueprint for approaching the COVID-19 crisis and its afterlives through the lens of health equity.

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