“When this all started, COVID-19 was touted as the great equalizer,” said Glenn Wakam, a surgical resident currently volunteering in a Detroit-area hospital. “Officials said it didn't matter your race, your religion, your socioeconomic status, that this would affect us all the same. That's just not true.”
“It's one of the million-dollar questions,” said Wakam, a 2011 Princeton alumnus, on the latest episode of Princeton University’s “We Roar” podcast. “Why? What is happening that is causing communities of color to be disproportionally affected?”
The disparities have been “extremely jarring,” he said. “As recently as two weeks ago in St. Louis, African Americans had — although they were something like maybe 20% of the population — accounted for 100% of the deaths. So every person who had died was African American.”
Prior to starting medical school, Wakam had tackled health disparities between white and black Americans from an unexpected angle, looking into possible genetic origins. For his senior thesis at Princeton, he compared the health outcomes of African immigrants and their children to those of African Americans whose families have lived in the United States for centuries.
“I'm first-generation — my parents are from Cameroon — and so this hit home with me,” he said. “When African immigrants come to the United States, they have equivalent health care outcomes to white Americans, and then within one generation — so their children, so me in this example — their outcomes plummet to the equivalent of African Americans who have lived here for generations.”
In other words, he said, the high rates of hypertension and diabetes and other poor health outcomes among African Americans are not genetic, but due to systemic, structural issues within the United States that disadvantage communities of color.
That research lay fallow as Wakam focused on medical school, but as the coronavirus pandemic continues to throw those structural disparities into stark relief, “this has reinvigorated me to think about these issues, talk about these issues, research these issues, and bring them back to the forefront,” he said. “I truly hope my career is different as a result of this pandemic.”