By Published: March 16, 2023

CU Boulder professor is concerned that the focus on individual responsibility for health and wellness—especially during health crises like the COVID pandemic—overlooks underlying causes as to why minorities generally had worse outcomes than the overall population in the U.S. Ideas to be discussed in next Let’s CU Well seminar

In the days since COVID-19 first became a pandemic in the United States in 2020, researchers and health care professionals developed a series of guidelines associated with getting vaccinated, masking, handwashing and social distancing, as well as making lifestyle changes, to reduce the risk of dying or becoming seriously ill from the disease.

Those guidelines were well-meaning, but at the same time they generally are focused on “biomedical individualism” (how the virus is transmitted and what the individual could do to reduce their risk) to the exclusion of understanding why certain segments of the population, particularly racial and ethnic minorities, were at much greater risk of being harmed by COVID-19, according to Maisam Alomar, University of Colorado Boulder professor in women and gender studies. Part of her research focuses on race and gender policies of medicine and rehabilitation.

“It’s not that masks or vaccines aren’t important,” says Alomar, acknowledging that the politics around COVID-19 can be polarizing. However, at the same time, “part of what I’m suggesting is that we need to be moving away from our almost exclusive focus on biomedical individualism in our understanding of wellness … to try to understand that group wellness is not just the sum of individual behaviors or the biological mechanisms by which the virus can infect someone.”

Image of Miasma Alomar

Maisam Alomar is an assistant professor in women and gender studies. Her research lies mainly in the areas of disability studies, cultural studies, ethnic studies, and also incorporates black studies and critical race scholarship to analyze ways racial categories shape what is considered a disability, who is considered disabled, and the legal and social consequences of such categorization.

For example, the scientific and health care communities came to embrace the idea that making healthful lifestyle choices could reduce the risk of becoming sick from COVID—without recognizing that these lifestyle choices are not equally available to everyone, that some people live in “food deserts” that make it difficult to obtain nutritious meals or that those populations don’t have easy access to recreational spaces, according to Alomar.

“These are some of the things we don’t tend to consider as much,” she says, adding, “I’m also suggesting that we should be tailoring our interventions to account for the most vulnerable people … and this idea that when you structure your health care systems in a way that’s geared toward the most vulnerable people that you yield better health results for everyone.”

What’s more, when considering why certain groups of people, such as racial or ethnic minorities, have worse outcomes when it comes to COVID, there is a tendency even among the scientific community to ascribe those outcomes to preexisting conditions within those communities or even biological factors—rather than issues having to do with socioeconomic inequities more generally and the disparity in health care among different segments of the U.S. population, according to Alomar.

Alomar will share other additional views on COVID-19 and U.S. health care policy during her upcoming seminar, “Moving Away from Biomedical Individualism in Health and Wellness.” This event is scheduled as a Zoom presentation starting at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, March 21. The event is free, but registration is required.

The event is part of the Let’s CU Well speaker series for CU staff, students and interested community members. The series is an offshoot of Be Well, a wellness initiative launched by the College of Arts and Sciences.

Alomar draws a line between COVID-19’s effects on varying populations relate and the “interdisciplines” at universities.

According to Alomar, interdisciplines—which includes Black and feminist studies—have performed valuable research related to COVID-19. That’s particularly true, she says, when it comes to debunking some unsupported claims involving COVID-19 outcomes based on race and ethnicity. 

Interdisciplines offer a very useful critique ... When budgets are tight, people start asking, do we really need this (field of study) if there’s a crisis? I think that when there’s a crisis we need these fields even more because of the explanatory power they offer.”

For example, she notes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has highlighted obesity as a co-morbidity factor disproportionally harming minorities in COVID outcomes, but that research from a noted sociologist found that “the association between ‘obesity’ and mortality is baseless.”

Alomar says interdisciplines at universities can be very useful for the insights and critiques they provide for various fields of study, such as science and health care. At the same time, she says interdisciplines also tend to be one of the programs universities first look to cut when their finances are dented by unforeseen circumstances, such as the Great Recession of 2008 or the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What I’m saying is interdisciplines offer a very useful critique, and it’s very important to have that in a university,” Alomar says. “When budgets are tight, people start asking, do we really need this (field of study) if there’s a crisis? I think that when there’s a crisis we need these fields even more because of the explanatory power they offer.”