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The 5th ELSI Congress - ELSIcon2022

ELSIcon2022 Paper: Diversity’s Pandemic Distractions


ELSIcon2022 • Paper • June 1, 2022

Jonathan Kahn

Pandemic diseases have a nasty history of racialization. Covid-19 is no exception. Beyond the obvious racist invocations of the “China virus” or the “Wuhan Flu” are subtler racializing dynamics that are often veiled in more benign motives but are nonetheless deeply problematic. The racialization of COVID-19 proceeded along two distinct trajectories each of which threatened to reinforce inaccurate biologized conceptions of race while diverting attention from the social, legal, and political forces historically structuring race-based health disparities. First, early on as significant racial disparities in disease incidence and mortality became evident, a frame of race-based genetic difference came to the fore as a possible explanation.

Second, as vaccine development ramped up there came widespread calls for racially “diversifying” clinical trials for the vaccines being tested. The rationales for such diversification were varied but tended to reinforce genetic frames of racial difference. Most common was the assertion (without substantial evidence) that vaccines might work differently in Black or Brown bodies and so racial diversity in trials was imperative for reasons of safety and efficacy.

This presentation explores the dynamics of how the concept of “diversity” deployed a genetic frame to racialize responses to COVID-19 and considers their broader implications for understanding and responding to racial disparities in the face of pandemic emergencies and beyond.


Population screening and public health genomics
Health Disparities

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