Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said Sunday the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. "shone a bright light on our own society's failings" in how the virus impacted minority communities.
Fauci stated that "the undeniable effects of racism" have led to unacceptable health disparities that especially hurt African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans during the pandemic.
President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser made the comments during an online commencement address for an Emory University graduation ceremony Sunday.
He told the graduates in Atlanta that many members of minority groups work in essential jobs where they might be exposed to the novel coronavirus. He noted they are more likely to become infected if exposed because of medical conditions such as hypertension, chronic lung disease, diabetes, or obesity.
"Now, very few of these comorbidities have racial determinants," Fauci said.
"Almost all relate to the social determinants of health dating back to disadvantageous conditions that some people of color find themselves in from birth regarding the availability of an adequate diet, access to health care, and the undeniable effects of racism in our society," he continued.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called racism a "serious" threat to public health. The CDC said COVID-19 was felt, most severely, in communities of color, areas that have also "experienced disproportionate case counts and deaths."
"Confronting the impact of racism will not be easy," the CDC's director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said in a statement on the agency’s website. "I know that we can do this if we work together. I certainly hope you will lean in and join me."
On Sunday, Fauci said that correcting the societal wrong will take a commitment of decades, and he urged graduates to be part of the solution. Once society returns to "some form of normality," he said, people shouldn't forget that infectious disease has disproportionally hospitalized and killed people of color.
Fauci was also awarded the Emory University president's medal Sunday. Accepting the award, Fauci praised the graduates for handling the profound disruption of the pandemic.
"Societal divisiveness is counterproductive in a pandemic," Fauci said. "We must not be at odds with each other since the virus is the enemy, not each other."
"Not since the influenza pandemic of 1918 has humanity faced a public health crisis of this magnitude," he continued. "Each of you deserves enormous respect for your extraordinary adaptability, resilience, and dedication to learning, completing your studies, and graduating despite immense difficulties and uncertainties."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.