As ABC News’ former Chief Health and Medical Editor and acting head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Richard Besser maintains that “at heart, I’m a general pediatrician.” Throughout his impressive career, Dr. Besser has volunteered to work with children in low-income communities. “It keeps me focused on what’s really important in people’s lives,” he says.
For this public health expert, these encounters highlight the way America’s long history of racial segregation and structural racism has affected communities’ income, education, living conditions, and even health. He stresses that COVID-19 has brought these ugly truths into sharp relief.
“Your ability to thrive during this pandemic is very much dependent on your income and the color of your skin,” Besser says.
In our new Tiny Spark podcast, Dr. Besser shares the importance of centering health equity while dealing with the coronavirus crisis. He talks about his current role as president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and weighs the potential power of philanthropy, despite its glaring lack of accountability. And he acknowledges that working at the CDC during the 2009 pandemic of the H1N1 influenza virus taught him that good, well-intentioned health policies on paper don’t always translate into practice.
“Here we are telling people to do something that for tens of millions of people is absolutely impossible to do,” he says about physical distancing. “That’s not success. If we truly want to be successful in our response to this pandemic, we have to make sure that everyone has what they need in order to protect their health, the health of their families, and their communities.”
- Besser’s Washington Post op-ed: “As Coronavirus Spreads, The Bill for Our Public Health Failures is Due”
- Tiny Spark’s “In Epidemics, Outbreak Culture is as Toxic as Disease”
- Inside Philanthropy: “What is the Top U.S. Health Philanthropy Doing in Response to COVID-19?”
- The New York Times: “I Used to Run the C.D.C. Here’s What It Can Do to Slow This Pandemic”
- The Los Angeles Times: “How Trump let the U.S. fall behind the curve on coronavirus threat”
- RWJF: “Life Experiences and Income Inequality in the United States”
- Besser on Twitter