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Tracking COVID-19 at UCLA2020-2021 Racial Justice Movement

UC Global Health Day focuses on diversifying health equity conversations

At a UC systemwide conference Saturday, Black and Indigenous panelists spoke about literacy in public health. (Courtesy of Victoria Li)

By Victoria Li

April 26, 2021 2:12 p.m.

Black and Indigenous panelists emphasized the importance of cultural literacy in public health at a University of California systemwide conference Saturday.

The 11th annual UC Global Health Day focused on the theme of decolonizing global health to advance health equity. Decolonization involves reexamining assumptions about formerly colonized populations and dismantling systems that perpetuate these beliefs, according to the UC Global Health Institute.

Kemi Amin, UC Global Health Institute communications director, said she felt it was critical to address these topics after a year of protests over racial injustice that started with the death of George Floyd in 2020.

“Histories of slavery, discrimination (and) racism are still present in the design of global and public health programs that can result in racial and ethnic inequities,” said Ndola Prata, a panel moderator and co-director for the Center of Expertise in Women’s Health, Gender and Empowerment at the UC Global Health Institute.

Many issues in global health are not inherently physical, but rather related to structures that create and promote inequity, said Elvin Geng, a professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and a UC Berkeley alumnus, at the event.

For Johnson Lyimo, a panelist, public health specialist and doctoral student at UC San Francisco, decolonization means reflecting on power imbalances between the Global North and South and examining who has the decision-making authority when it comes to global health.

Other speakers at the event described what decolonizing global health meant to them.

Andrea Garcia, a physician specialist at the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, said at the event that global health equity means empowering the voices of those who often go unheard, including Native American and Indigenous people.

Working towards decolonization involves creating more opportunities for Indigenous leadership and utilizing Indigenous knowledge to improve public health, said Beth Rose Middleton Manning, a panelist and the department chair of Native American studies at UC Davis.

Traditional Native American teachings about land can also help people experiencing homelessness, for example, by improving health and well-being, Garcia said.

The use of doulas and midwives has been a strong tradition in the Black community and highly successful at improving maternal health outcomes, said Nykki Velora Jones, a UCLA public health alumna, at the event.

The conference featured a wide range of speakers – from researchers and students to activists and musicians – in order to diversify the conversation surrounding global health, Amin said. Expertise from fields outside of health and academia can provide new perspectives on how to improve global health, she added.

Students also play an instrumental role in decolonizing global health, said Bridgette Smith, an epidemiology doctoral student at UC Davis who spoke at the conference. There are still inequities in academia when it comes to publishing global health research, said Siana Nkya, another panelist and a UC Global Health Institute alumna.

Lyimo said at the event that funding for programs controlling infectious diseases like malaria often goes to high-income countries, even though most of the work is actually carried out in low-income countries.

Health programs abroad also tend to treat symptoms of an issue rather than the root cause, Jones said. Instead, they should provide local communities with the tools and resources they need to truly address the health issues at hand, she added.

[Related: UCLA given low rating for accessibility, transparency of biomedical research]

Medicine has perpetuated dangerous myths about race throughout history, said Radmilla Cody, the opening speaker and a Navajo community organizer. The news media was quick to assume that Native American communities would be ill-equipped to take on the pandemic, she added.

However, Indigenous approaches to pandemic relief have also been highly successful, said Virginia Hedrick, a UCLA alumna and executive director for the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health who spoke at the conference. Tribal community members delivered food and supplies to families in quarantine daily, she added.

Hedrick said a tribal leader told her 90% of their elders had already received the COVID-19 vaccination.

[Related: Increased COVID-19 vaccine accessibility brings hope to address health disparities]

Amin said she hopes the conference will continue the dialogue on racism, oppression and colonization in the U.S. and around the world. It is a starting point for reimagining global health and finding a way forward, Amin added.

“We are still facing a pandemic, and I think we have this great opportunity to transform global health,” Prata said. “We all have a role to play.”

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