Racial Health Disparities Didn’t Start With Covid: The Overlooked History of Polio

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted racial disparities with roots in the past.

Vaccines began to bring an end to polio in 1955, but – as with the Covid vaccine today – Black communities were slower to receive them.

The coronavirus pandemic has been twice as deadly for Black Americans than whites, and now Black and Hispanic Americans are lagging behind whites in receiving the Covid-19 vaccine.

But the little-known history of polio shows that racial and health disparities are not new. “One of the things that the history of polio tells us is that our racial disparities, health disparities were not invented in the past 10 years, and that very often, they have been deliberately ignored,” Naomi Rogers, a medical historian at Yale, told Retro Report.

During the polio outbreaks of the 1930s, white scientists had pushed the theory that Blacks were less susceptible to polio. But in fact, many cases of polio in Black victims went undiagnosed. A segregated medical system denied them access to adequate care, and the top treatment center, founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the nation’s most famous polio victim, admitted only white patients.

A fundraising effort begun in 1938 urged Americans to mail cards and letters, each containing a dime, to the White House. “There were a number of civil rights activists who began to protest that they were part of the March of Dimes, they were raising money, and they deserved to be able to have some of their children admitted to the top rehab center, especially as its patron was the president of the United States,” Ms. Rogers said.

In the 1940s, under pressure from Black donors, the March of Dimes began building treatment centers open to all races, and training Black nurses and doctors.

  • Producer: Karen M. Sughrue
  • Editor: Heru Muharrar