Racism is the public health crisis, covid-19 is the symptom experts say

Local governments are beginning to declare racism as a public health emergency.

Oyin Adedoyin, Editor in Chief

The fact that COVID-19 is affecting Black Americans at a higher rate is not a surprise to most public health experts. But its cause is rooted in something deeper than the pandemic and stretches long before this year.

“Right now, we are battling two pandemics,” said Sylvette A. La Touche-Howard, associate clinical professor in the University of Maryland, School of Public Health.

Public health representatives say that systemic racism leaves communities of color more susceptible to health-related ailments than their White counterparts. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the disproportionate effects of COVID-19, have encouraged local government involvement.

African Americans are leading in COVID-19 cases in the state, according to data from the Maryland Department of Health.

“We really have to dig deeper and look at ‘what is this concept of race and how and why should that determine someone’s health outcome?’” La Touche-Howard said.

The American Association of Public Health (AAPH) has declared racism as a public health issue. The association is keeping track of counties across the country that are making similar announcements.

This year, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has placed a magnifying glass on the issues of systemic racism, pushing local leaders to address racism in healthcare.

As COVID-19 cases spike across the country, experts say that the disproportionate effects of the virus in minority communities is just another reason to pay attention to racial disparities.

“You’ve begun to see people push a political agenda where racism has to be recognized as problematic,” said Kim Sydnor, dean of the School of Community Health and Policy at Morgan State University.

Last year, Steuwart Pitman, the Anne Arundel County executive, and Health OfficerNilesh Kalyanaraman declared racism as a public health issue. In June, the Montgomery County Council passed a resolution declaring racism a public health emergency.

The following displays the percentage of persons of all ages in fair and poor health by race, according to CDC data. (Oyin Adedoyin)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 13 percent of African Americans of all ages are in fair or poor health compared to more than 9 percent of the White population, more than 8 percent of the Asian or Pacific Islander population and 10 percent of the Hispanic population.

The one population higher than the Black population is the Native American population. More than 17 percent of Native Americans of all ages are in fair or poor health.

“These declarations are an important first step in the movement to advance racial equity and justice and must be followed by allocation of resources and strategic action,” the APHA said on their website.

Black people are leading in a number of health-related illnesses. Cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, diabetes, lung cancer and hypertension are just a few, according to La Touche-Howard.

Where a person lives, their healthcare access, job and socioeconomic status all play a role in their health outcome, but so does a person’s race.

“Two babies, born in the same hospital, on the same day and the label on the White baby versus the label on the Black baby are two totally different things,” La Touche-Howard said. “That’s a public health problem.”

“That should not be. If they both have the same genetic makeup and they’re both born in the same place, the same doctor delivered them, one would think that their trajectory in life would be the same. However, it’s not and it’s a vast difference.”

While public health organizations are pushing for legal change, there is still concern about lack of recognition from the highest government office.

In September, the Trump administration released an executive order on combating race and sex stereotyping.

The order urged against racial discrimination by quoting famous words from President Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. It urged readers not to believe ideologies of racism and sexism in America and that racial sensitivity trainings perpetuate “racial stereotypes and division.”

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) critiqued the order.

According to an AAMC statement, the administration’s document “exhibits a misunderstanding of most diversity and inclusion training programs and therefore will only further divide an already fragmented nation.”

The AAMC added that the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and protests for Black lives show that racial biases in America persist and are detrimental to the country’s minority population.

“Yes; disparities are real, inequities are real, and they have a racial bias,” Sydnor said.

The Association of American Medical Colleges agrees. It has established an antiracist framework to address health disparities within communities of color.

“Race is a social construct,” said Sherese Johnson, AAMC public health initiatives director. “It is not rooted in something that is biological and part of that means that we have to change the narrative.”

This story is a part of “Black Health Matters,” a year-long reporting program through The Poynter Institute’s College Media Project. The project’s objective: to tell health related stories through the lens of Black college students, while examining possible solutions.