AAAS Kavli Lecture: Amy Maxmen on Inequality as a Frontier for Science Journalism

Months after its onset, the COVID pandemic revealed that communities of color were at much higher risk of illness and death than white people, journalist Amy Maxmen said at a Nov. 3 conference. AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award. Some researchers have looked for biological explanations to explain the disparities, and many researchers have briefly noted unequal living conditions, Maxmen said, but they have failed to address the issues in any substantial way.

An October 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, for example, noted that Hispanics were dying from COVID-19 at dramatically disproportionate rates. The article suggested that these higher death rates could be due to factors such as living in crowded households, reliance on jobs that require in-person work, and reduced access to health care. Still, the CDC later recommended preventing the spread of the deadly disease with face coverings, social distancing and hand washing.

Amy Maxmen

“To me, it’s just not good science,” Maxmen said during his lecture at the University of California, Berkeley. “There’s no way you’re saying a problem is reduced access to healthcare and then you say, ‘wash your hands’.”

It is in part this avoidance of fundamental issues that may explain why, more than 150 years after researchers began documenting how the disease disproportionately affects marginalized people, “we still face the same old public health problems. “, said Maxmen.

His talk was the second of three in this year’s AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award lecture series and was co-hosted by the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and the Kavli Center for Ethics, Science, and the Public of the university. Each year, the lecture series brings the winners of the prestigious award to college campuses for public lectures and workshops with journalism students. Maxmen, now Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, won a 2020 AAAS Kavli Gold Award while working for the journal Nature.

While writing about global health and infectious disease, Maxmen’s reporting often brought her to situations where she discovered that inequality played a significant role in causing, deepening and worsening crises. sanitary. As a science journalist, she says, it is her responsibility to report on this connection.

In her speech, Maxmen said she was “trying to make the point that inequality as a subject belongs in science and science journalists need to cover it.” Inequality is often dismissed, she said, with the explanation that the underlying issues are not about science. But Maxmen argued that the goal of science is progress, and that progress will lag behind if the fruits of science are available only to a few.

Maxmen graduated from UC Berkeley with a Bachelor of Science degree before moving on to Harvard, where she earned a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology. She publishes her doctoral thesis, on spider crabs, in Nature — then decides to become a journalist. “It’s another way to satisfy my curiosity,” she said, while being able to “jump a little more.”

In 2014, Maxmen traveled to Sierra Leone to report a massive Ebola outbreak. She found that people who had contracted the disease avoided hospitals, not necessarily because of beliefs and superstitions around traditional medicine as was commonly believed, but because “people had had very bad experiences in hospitals. “.

Hospitals were overcrowded, without enough nurses to provide care, and health care providers demanded money for treatment that was supposed to be free, people told Maxmen. While visiting hospitals, she learned that health care providers were neither paid nor protected from contagion. The walls were covered with leaflets showing pictures of doctors, nurses and paramedics who died very quickly and at a young age while trying to treat patients.

Although $3 billion was donated to manage the outbreak, there was no payment system and the fraction of the aid money intended to compensate national health workers was not reaching them.

“I didn’t go to Sierra Leone to write about the payroll,” Maxmen said, but that issue was the root of a major breakdown in the handling of the outbreak. “I spoke to health workers who said they would never work in an outbreak again.”

In 2020, Maxmen reported similar circumstances when COVID-19 hit California’s San Joaquin Valley, causing so many deaths that refrigerated food trucks were converted into makeshift morgues. What Maxmen found were people who worked on farms and meatpacking plants with little access to health care, no labor protections, and “not much agency to do anything about it.” about these problems. “It was a setup for a really bad time with a communicable disease,” Maxmen said.

Workers at farms, processing plants and meatpacking plants told him they kept working when they were sick because they needed every paycheck, and some feared they would be laid off if they did. they tested positive for COVID-19. Many sick people have avoided hospitals because former President Donald Trump said undocumented workers who go to the emergency room face deportation. A study found that in 2020, food and agriculture workers in California had a 40% increased risk of dying, compared to the rest of the state’s residents.

Maxmen said the situation was reminiscent of an 1848 report by a Prussian doctor named Rudolf Virchow about a typhus-ravaged part of eastern Europe known as Upper Silesia. Virchow claimed that the affected residents, the miners, were exploited and therefore could not protect themselves from the disease. Virchow said the Silesians were seen as tools, not humans, by the plutocracy. His observation seemed to reverberate in the San Joaquin Valley, where people working on farms had told Maxmen that the COVID-era term “essential worker” was curious because it felt like an honor, only they didn’t feel not treated with care by the country they have nurtured throughout the pandemic.

“Which part is essential?” asked Maxmen. “Is this their job or their life? The resounding answer seemed to be their job.

Maxmen pointed to an alliance between San Joaquin Valley community organizations and local universities and institutions as a valuable example of how science could help address some of the health issues associated with inequality. Researchers and local doctors collaborated with community organizations — each dedicated to different groups, including African Americans, Southeast Asian refugees and indigenous peoples of Oaxaca — in an effort known as the COVID-19 Equity Project. Valley workers trusted community organizations, whose representatives worked to learn about and meet the needs of their communities. They offered food, help avoiding evictions, free onsite COVID-19 testing and valuable information about the disease. The collaborative effort was effective, Maxmen said.

“I think one thing that stands out is that public health might be able to achieve more of its goals by working more closely with community organizations,” Maxmen said. The article she wrote about the San Joaquin Valley, titled “The Deadly Toll of Inequality,” was generally well received, Maxmen said, as well as by scientists and science journalists.

The public health effects of inequality are “huge problems and they’re not easy to solve,” Maxmen said. “They are complex. Bringing them back is where we can start to see solutions, or at least the challenges that stand in the way.

Angela C. Hale