A year into the coronavirus pandemic that is disproportionately ravaging African American lives both physically and economically, efforts are underway to target racism as a public health crisis that shortens lives and costs millions of dollars.
“Systemic racism defines the Black experience in our nation,” said Virginia Democratic State Delegate Lashrecse Aird, who co-sponsored a resolution approved by lawmakers in February that makes Virginia the first state in the South to declare racism a public health crisis.
“It provides the framework for all of us to formally and finally reckon with those injustices so we can build a more equitable and just society for all,” Aird said in a statement to VOA.
The Virginia resolution cites more than 100 studies that link racism to negative health outcomes. The research indicates the cumulative experience of racism throughout a person’s life can induce chronic stress and health conditions that may lead to otherwise preventable deaths. Overall life expectancy for African Americans is nearly 3 ½ years shorter than for white people.
“Virginians of color, especially Black Virginians, deserve no further delay of the Commonwealth’s public recognition of this centuries-old crisis,” Robert Barnette Jr., president of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, told VOA in a virtual news conference.
“We know systemic racism manifests itself as a determinant to public health through persistent racial disparities in all areas of our lives,” he said.
The Virginia resolution would create a watchdog agency to promote policies that address systemic racism and its impact on public health. It requires state elected officials, their staff, and state employees to undergo training to recognize racism. Community engagement throughout the state will also be promoted to detect racism.
The legislation is a big step for lawmakers in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, and a state with a checkered history of racially discriminatory and segregationist activities. Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to approve the declaration soon.
Virginia joins Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and dozens of municipalities that have issued similar nonbinding resolutions in the last year. However, some communities are hoping to use the measures to direct additional funding for research and grants to support intervention programs.
While some communities addressed racism as a public health emergency before the coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19 has underlined the health disparities among communities of color.
“Racism is literally killing Black and brown people. It’s a public health crisis, and it’s beyond time to treat it as such,” said Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison of Austin, Texas, which declared racism a public health crisis in July 2020.
“The inequities are countless, and they aren’t because African Americans are inherently inferior. They are the fruits of generations’ worth of explicitly discriminatory and racist policies,” Harper-Madison said.
A nationwide poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 70% of African Americans believe people are treated unfairly based on race or ethnicity when they seek medical care. Additionally, 50% of Black people said they do not trust the U.S. health care system.
“It’s hard day-to-day when you’re constantly being denied or overlooked. It has an effect on your mental health,” said Janette Boyd Martin, president of the NAACP in Charlottesville, Virginia.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, half of African Americans do not seek help for mental health issues, often because they fear the stigma some associate with it. Overall, only one in three Black adults who need mental health care ultimately receives it.
Legacy of mistrust
Historically, racism in the U.S. health care system has long left African Americans burdened by chronic illness, reduced access to healthy foods and preventative treatment. As a result, Black people suffer more frequently than white people from diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, maternal mortality and infant mortality.
African Americans have also been the subjects of unethical medical research programs.
In 1932, the U.S. government launched a medical experiment on the progression of syphilis, studying nearly 400 Black men who suffered from the disease. At the time of the study, there was no known cure for syphilis. The men never gave informed consent or received proper treatment. Even when penicillin was used to treat syphilis in 1947, researchers did not offer it to them. The study ended after 40 years when the research became public and caused a national outcry.
Another case involved Henrietta Lacks, a poor Black woman from Baltimore, Maryland, who in 1951 was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University. Her unique cells, collected without her consent, were patented by medical researchers who reaped millions of dollars. Called "HeLa" cells, they continue to be used in medical research around the world.
Changing the course of history
In January, U.S. President Joe Biden launched a task force to examine ways to reverse persistent racial and ethnic disparities in health care.
“What’s needed to ensure equity in the recovery is not limited to health and health care,” said Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chairwoman of the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force.
“We have to have conversations about housing stability and food security and educational equity, and pathways to economic opportunities and promise,” she said.
The task force plans to target at-risk locations and provide medical resources to vulnerable communities struggling with social and economic inequalities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans are three times more likely to die from COVID-19. In addition, people of color are infected with the disease and hospitalized at higher rates than the white population. Despite the high rates of infection, Black people are being vaccinated at half the rate of white Americans, according to the CDC.
In Utah, where racial disparities persist, an effort to declare racism a public health crisis was postponed. State Representative Sandra Hollins withdrew her sponsored resolution at the conclusion of this year’s legislation session.
Some Utah lawmakers questioned the policy implications and said they did not understand the link between race and health care.
“People don’t know what racism is,” Hollins, the only African American in the state Legislature, said recently in a televised interview.
She said she will reintroduce the measure in 2022.
“My definition of what racism is as a Black woman who grew up in the South may be different than people who may have grown up in Utah. The definitions are different, and that’s part of the conversation we need to have,” she said.