Harvard Law School, Kennedy School Professors Talk Racial Inequalities During COVID-19


The Harvard Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children held a virtual panel Tuesday evening called “Context and Casualties: Racial Inequalities During COVID-19,” to discuss the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on racial minorities.

David Harris, the managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, and Harvard Kennedy School professor of criminal justice Sandra S. Smith offered insights on why they believe Black, Latinx, and indigenous populations have been especially vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

Many racial minorities face greater risk of exposure due to their jobs, they said. According to Harris, 80 percent of Black workers are unable to work at home, and Black Americans are disproportionately overrepresented in essential frontline jobs.

Harris and Smith also said the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on racial minorities are derived from racial disparities in the criminal justice system, healthcare system, and socioeconomic inequalities. One cannot think about solutions to these issues without also considering solutions to their longstanding roots, Harris said.


“COVID might be forcing us to look at and investigate and come up with solutions to things that existed before COVID and will exist after COVID,” Harris said.

The Harvard FIMRC decided on Tuesday's topic in light of the ongoing pandemic, the racial and social issues arising from COVID-19, and the Black Lives Matter movement protests, according to both Harvard FIMRC Co-Vice President Huong T. Le ’22 and Speaker Series Lead Ciaran S. Brayboy ’23.

While the event’s central focus was on the impacts of COVID-19, both Le and Brayboy said in an interview that they hoped attendees would take away from the conversation a broader awareness of the racial inequalities and discrimination in the healthcare system, as well as the implicit biases in the medical field.

“It’s important to note that all these disparities in the healthcare system didn’t just arise during the COVID pandemic,” Brayboy said. “The discrimination was here before this, but I feel like the COVID pandemic just really forced those things out and really made people aware of them.”

Brayboy said it is especially important for Harvard undergraduates planning to pursue medicine to participate in these conversations to better understand the experiences of those to whom they otherwise would not be able to relate.

“Medical care is so much more than just treating a patient’s physical ailments, and that’s really why we put on this talk,” Brayboy said. “It’s really about understanding the patient, understanding their background, understanding the patient’s culture, at the end of the day, that provides them the most comfort.”

The conversation was part of a series by the FIMRC leading up to a global health equity conference, where participants will address inequality within the global health system. The conference will take place during reading period at the end of the fall semester.

“The conference will include activities for participants in the community to get engaged in actively thinking about how they can be a part of making a change and addressing these issues,” Le said.

—Staff writer Christina T. Pham can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Christina_TPham.