On Health Disparities and COVID-19: An Interview with Sherenne Simon

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Sherenne Simon, a public health advisor with a background in public health, health equity, business, infectious disease, and organizational development. 

Thanks for agreeing to talk with BlackHer. Can you tell us about your work and how you got into the field of health disparities and epidemiology (the study of patterns of health and diseases in human populations)?

Early in my career, I trained as an epidemiologist. I have two master’s degrees: one in public health epidemiology and another in public health education. I was a fellow in the New Jersey Department of Health.

After working as an epidemiologist I wanted to learn about different aspects of health. I transitioned into the business side of healthcare and worked at a Wall Street consulting firm. This taught me that the private sector and health care can work well for health systems, but not so well for individuals. After that experience, I pivoted to work in health disparities and health equity, which I’ve been doing for fifteen years.

I have had the opportunity to work in a variety of settings. I worked at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, which is one of the poorest Congressional districts in the country. I ran an HIV/AIDS program in nine cities through a public/private partnership with a non-profit organization and Merck pharmaceuticals. I’ve also worked with non-profits on issues of maternal and child health and hemophilia. To appease my long-standing interest in global health, I worked as a subcontractor on an emerging pandemic threat program for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).  We were focused on health systems change in Africa and Southeast Asia and preventing the next pandemic—which we are now in. 

As a public health expert, what is your perspective of what’s happening right now? 

As someone who has studied pandemics and worked on them in other countries, this is my first time living through one as an adult in the United States. It’s interesting to watch how other countries are responding to COVID. I take comfort in knowing there are experts in international organizations that are paving the way. 

When this first started, I was really concerned about cities. Outbreaks happen fastest in cities because people live in shared spaces. Watching this unfold makes me think a lot about where I choose to live. 

The challenges happening around testing and resources are hard for me to wrap my head around. There’s a shortage of kits and testing swabs and some states are now going through non-traditional channels to procure tests, even though normally, there is an actual process that states would go through. 

When COVID started ramping up and medical professionals started talking about pre-existing conditions, I knew it would be people of color and low-income folks who’d be the most impacted. 

The country is having a collective awakening to the extreme inequalities that some of us have been working for years to address. COVID-19 helps us to see that inequality in education, access to healthcare, and unstable transportation and employment are serious barriers in many communities.

Now that states are starting to reopen, I’m concerned they haven’t done a sufficient amount of testing. I fear this will lead to a false sense of security as people return to work and social settings. Without treatment, the disease won’t go away. 

We know from other pandemics and diseases what happens when there is less coverage in the media. For example, even though Black women still have higher rates of death from breast cancer, it’s not in the spotlight. We have a month where everyone wears their ribbons and then it leaves the news cycle. The same is true with maternal health, heart, and kidney disease. Once these issues leave the news cycle, people forget about them while folks continue to get sick or worse. 

What do you think Black women need to know right now about what’s happening and how can we talk about it with our friends and family? 

It’s important to understand our experiences with health care and, that for black communities generally, there is a mistrust of the government. When we think about consuming information and following guidelines, it’s important to ask if the information is coming from a trusted and authoritative source. It’s also important if we know someone impacted. People may not understand the severity until it personally affects them. 

Some of us can rely on knowledge and information and make our own decisions. Others will need to rely on peer resources,  social circles, or the folks with whom they worship to make informed decisions. 

We need to practice empathy and humility with one another. 

Black women know how to do this. We have been through various challenges in our lifetimes at home, in romantic and familial relationships, and at work.  We triumph through difficult situations daily. We have the tools, skills, and relationships to get through this time of uncertainty. Reaching into our toolbox of resiliency at this moment is important and will help us to survive and thrive. 

What are your practices related to self-care and wellness and how are you sustaining yourself through this time? 

I’m now doing yoga teacher training through Embrace Yoga DC with Faith Hunter. I started before COVID. Now, her classes have moved online. I’ve been practicing yoga for 15 years but never gotten trained. I love it because I get to nerd out on philosophy, asanas, poses, and sequencing. It’s a lot more in-depth than I imagined! It’s also been intellectually stimulating during this time. 

Lately, I’m being realistic about what I can or can’t do and how much energy I have. I’ve checked my ambition during this time. I divide my days into thirds: two hours are devoted to me, during which I may write, read, do something artistic. I bought a new guitar, am creating art, and spend time with myself at the beginning of the day. Then I devote some time to work. The last third of the day, I wind down for four hours. I also started reading science fiction novels written with Black women, including Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi Binti: the Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor

Let me ask you the miracle question. You go to sleep tomorrow and wake up and it’s 2021 and a miracle has occurred for Black women. What happened? 

Going to Africa, and being there for an extended period of time, I felt a weight come off my spirit. I was finally just a woman, not a Black woman. It’s the most liberating feeling and I would love for those of us who live here, or from countries outside of the continent of Africa, to have that feeling just once. 

In my miracle, life would still have challenges, but race would not be a factor. I want all of us to get to experience that!




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