Interview: Public Health Professor Jason Corburn about COVID-19 in Oakland

Earlier this year, Oakland Voices reached out to a few public health professionals to understand how and why COVID-19 seemed to impact Oakland neighborhoods and communities differently. One of the people we talked to was Jason Corburn, professor of City Planning and Public Health at UC Berkeley. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Oakland Voices: Why are COVID-19 cases disproportionately in Oakland?

COVID-19 is disproportionately in predominantly African-American and Latino Oakland due to over 400 years of structural racism and dehumanization of black and brown bodies. COVID-19 is just another manifestation of how chronic inequality, marginalization, discrimination get into our bodies to shape health and well-being.

Voices: Why are Blacks, Latinos being disproportionately impacted?

All the above results in bodily harm. Racism, interpersonal to institutional, damages our immune system through a chronic release of stress hormones. These ‘fight-or-flight’ hormones, when constantly released, damage the brain architecture, cause internal inflammation, contributing to heart disease, stroke, etc; dysregulated insulin, for example, diabetes and obesity; and even shorten our chromosomes.

So policies and practices that discriminate and stress us out – from lack of safe and affordable housing, predatory landlords & lending, de-funding schools, going that discourages local business and supermarkets, concentrating waste dumps, expanding freeways, targeted policing, etc. – all of it combines to wear away at our bodies. 

This combined with an economic system that has forced black and brown folks to work in low-wage, service jobs, in risky health care settings like nursing homes and hospitals where they are not given adequate protections, health care, no paid sick days, no option to stay home. This can lead to delayed health care because of cost or fear of mistreatment or deportation. The combination of inequalities at multiple levels contribute to the disproportionate impacts.

Oakland Voices: How do pre-existing inequalities contribute to the outcomes we’re seeing? 

Let’s also not ignore the role of science and medicine in all this…the narrative is common now, namely that Science will ride in on its White Horse (it’s always white with a white guy and white hat) and save us. 

This is another form of racism, since it ignores that science, medicine & public health have, and continue to, over sample, experimented on, and ‘test’ black and brown bodies, all with serious adverse health implications. This medical colonialism continues and explains why folks don’t trust health care, science messages, and don’t see themselves in the ‘science-informed’ decision-making. 


Jason Corburn is a Professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning and the School of Public Health. He is the author of the book, Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice

About Rasheed Shabazz

Rasheed Shabazz is a multimedia storyteller, urban planning historian, and youth development professional based in the Bay Area. He coordinates Oakland Voices and is currently in the Masters of City and Regional Planning program at UC Berkeley.  View all posts by Rasheed Shabazz →

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