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VCU, COVID-19 and race and health inequities

An interview with VCU psychologist Faye Belgrave, Ph.D.
faye belgrave in her office at v.c.u. [View Image]

Faye Belgrave is interim dean of equity and community partnerships, university professor, professor of psychology and founding director of the Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention in the College of Humanities and Sciences. Her work is community focused, promoting the welfare of African American adolescents and young adults. More recently, her projects involve substance abuse and sexual education health care, such as HIV prevention and education to Black students and young adults in the community. Her two decades with VCU gives her a unique perspective on the environmental, social and cultural challenges at the university and Richmond as well as on the current global pandemic that is also disproportionately affecting Black Americans: COVID-19.

Over the past two decades, what changes have you witnessed in the types of research conducted by VCU faculty, specifically related to minorities and health inequities?

One notable change has been in the interdisciplinary nature of research. Certain faculty have always been interested in health inequities and ways to attenuate these inequities but more and more faculty are coming together from different units to understand and address health inequities. For example, I am a psychologist but was a member of April Kimmel’s [an economist in the School of Medicine’s Department of Health Behavior and Policy] team to explore geographical and other factors that relate to access to HIV treatment among racial/ethnic groups.

I have also observed more mutually respectful and collaborative community partnerships. In fact, for the [VCU] iCubed cores, these are required. In the past, African American and Latinx communities have experienced health disparities, created by oppressive systems of racism and discrimination, and then studied (mostly by white researchers) who benefited without any real change in the community. I think this is changing as there is more attention and effort devoted to genuine community partnerships so that participants in our studies contribute to and benefit from our research. So, I would say, exploitation of Black and brown people in health disparity research is at least acknowledged as a bad thing and in some cases, real change is being made.

There are still insufficient numbers of underrepresented minority researchers conducting health disparity research at VCU and elsewhere.

“There is more attention and effort devoted to genuine community partnerships so that participants in our studies contribute to and benefit from our research.”

As public health officials try to reach out to communities of color regarding the current pandemic, are there any lessons from the HIV pandemic that might be applicable?

As with HIV, we realize that the folks who are most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic are least likely to be the recipients of information and prevention resources. It was only when messages were delivered within African American communities by African Americans including African Americans living with HIV that the seriousness was realized. So, I think public health officials need to think about the delivery of the message. They also must be realistic about the context in which many African American and other racial/ethnic minorities live. Messages and materials delivered in places where vulnerable populations work and live are important. Also, more recently we see large gaps in COVID-19 vaccinations for people of color and other vulnerable populations. These disparities relate to lack of access and not just reluctance on getting vaccinations. Unfortunately, as we see with other health disparities, the people most affected are less likely to be vaccinated.

What can community leaders and public health officials do to encourage people to “trust the science”?

Since people of color are more affected by COVID 19, it makes sense to target messages to them. Taking lessons from other prevention and educational messaging programs for people of color (especially African Americans) this would involve faith-based institutions, community organizations and settings indigenous to people of color including social media sites; barbershops and beauty salons have been used as sites for health messages for several types of prevention programming. Finally, messages should be delivered by similar and relatable others including lay community leaders, leaders from faith-based institutions, etc. Having state public health officials making the appeals on
television or encouraging folks to visit the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website] is not going to be enough.

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