In September, the Jean Beer Blumenfeld Center for Ethics hosted “Health Care Access and the 2020 Election.” This was the first session of the Ethics and the 2020 Elections series, which is generously supported by the Georgia Humanities and co-sponsored by Georgia State partners, including the Center for Law, Health & Society; Center for Human Rights and Democracy; the Office of Civic Engagement; the Center for Studies on Africa and its Diaspora; the Department of Philosophy; and the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics program. The session examined the impact the upcoming election will have on health care access, the response to COVID-19 and public health infrastructure.
The discussion was moderated by Andrew I. Cohen, director of the Center for Ethics. The panel consisted of Yolanda Wilson, associate professor of philosophy at Howard University, Seema Mohapatra, associate professor of law at Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law, Ruqaiijah Yearby, professor of law at St. Louis University School of Law, and Rodney Lyn, interim dean at Georgia State University School of Public Health.
Wilson began the discussion by analogizing health care access to access to polling stations, particularly in rural spaces. “Shutting down polling places so that people have to travel further or wait in longer lines, issues with actual physical access to the building so that people with disabilities may have had difficulty accessing the building . . . these all have similar parallels to health care.”
In some states such as Mississippi, voter concerns about protecting their health and preserving their right to vote directly intersect, explained Wilson. Those who are at higher risk of serious illness or death from contracting COVID-19 through activities like standing in line for hours to vote are also facing barriers to alternative methods of voting, such as voting by mail, due to some politicians’ unfounded preoccupation with voter fraud.
Structural racism is the way that laws and policies are used to limit equal access to resources such as affordable housing, quality health care, education and high wage jobs. Even prior to the pandemic, these inequities have led to a disproportionate rate of poor health outcomes among racial and ethnic minorities. These existing inequities have exacerbated the problem created by the pandemic: minorities are more susceptible to contracting COVID-19, and more likely to be hospitalized or die, compared to white populations.
“The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates starkly how structural racism plays out in our health care system,” said Mohapatra. “Racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 not due to any biological differences between races, which don’t exist, but rather because of social factors, primarily historical and current practices of discrimination.”
Emphasizing the importance of the upcoming election, Mohapatra continued, “It is vital that people think of health care when they cast their vote and think of who will support the policies that will help dismantle structural discrimination.”
Yearby, who is also the co-founder and executive director of the Institute for Healing Justice and Equity, focused on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on essential workers. “The majority of essential workers are women, racial and ethnic minorities and the poor,” said Yearby. “The majority of these workers are in health care or food and agricultural positions and typically do not have paid sick leave, health insurance coverage or access to treatment.”
Employers have not fully complied with government health and safety protections, such as guidance to provide workers with personal protective equipment. “Instead of focusing on the ways to protect essential workers, states have enacted business liability protection for their employers,” said Yearby. In order to provide protection for essential workers, voters need to consider electing politicians who are willing to adopt policies that protect workers.
Lyn concluded the session. “When laws or policies widen inequities or leave certain segments of society underserved that is a serious threat to justice…. In the end these elections matter greatly for shaping the trajectory of our society and for determining whether equity and justice will be a central player in our society,” he said. “But elections are not a panacea. Neither party has done enough to advance justice and equity. We as citizens have agency, and we have to do what we have done and what we are doing now, and that is organize and demand change.”
To view the recording of “Health Care Access and the 2020 Elections,” and for information on future sessions in the Ethics and the 2020 Elections series, visit ethics.gsu.edu.