When the coronavirus outbreak hit the United States in early 2020, public health officials in Milwaukee were among the first to notice its disturbing racial trend.
In the same week in March that President Trump declared a national emergency in the U.S. as a result of the disease, statistics showed that Black people, who represented a third of Milwaukee’s population, accounted for nearly three-quarters of its confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Milwaukee was able to identify and track this trend early, and ahead of other jurisdictions in the U.S.— even the federal government—because less than a year earlier, the city and county had declared racism a public health crisis. The designation was a commitment to framing disparities in health outcomes through a racial lens. It also meant that when COVID-19 began spreading across the country, health officials in Milwaukee were already collecting data based on race and ethnicity.
“When COVID-19 hit, Milwaukee was ahead of the curve because they already had that framework to begin with,” says Dr. Marshall Fleurant, assistant professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and chair of the Society of General Internal Medicine Health Equity Commission. “They were one of the very first departments to show us the disparity and who’s dying from COVID-19. That’s one of the benefits of declaring racism as a public health crisis.”
Now in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, a growing number of jurisdictions as well as major health organizations are acknowledging that racism is a detriment to public health.
“We can see the impact when we look at Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and many others,” says Dr. Tracie Collins, dean of The University of New Mexico College of Population Health. “The racism really warrants attention, it warrants prevention, diagnosis, and treatment like any other crisis.”
Racism adds additional stress to the lives of people already trying to figure out how to pay their bills or feed their children, Collins says. “During the pandemic, maybe I can’t stay at home and self-isolate because I’ve got to get to work and therefore I might be exposing myself. When we address [the role of] racism, we’re addressing a level of stress—that can also help these communities.”
A growing movement
The American Medical Association, the American College of Emergency Physicians and the American Psychological Association have all declared institutional racism an urgent public health issue. The head of the APA, Arthur C. Evans Jr., Ph.D., in a report about elevated levels of stress in this country said, “The majority of Americans are finally coming to terms with the reality people of color have known all too well for all too long and that research has documented: Racism poses a public health threat and the psychological burden is immense. We have a lot of healing to do as a nation.”
Nearly 70 local jurisdictions have made this designation, most of them doing so as protests and demonstrations over racial inequality erupted across the nation and the globe. Several states, including Michigan and Ohio, are also considering it.
While the meaning of racism as a public health crisis differs from one jurisdiction to another, the designation opens the door for a range of issues, including health inequities, to be examined through the prism of race—for instance, understanding the impact of food deserts on the prevalence of obesity and other health disparities in Black communities.
A range of disturbing health trends helped support the declaration in Milwaukee last year, including the high mortality rate for Black residents, whose life expectancy is 14 years shorter than for White people.
And, as in other cities across the country, COVID-19 continues to devastate Black communities. As of July 22, Black people comprised nearly 33% of all confirmed COVID cases in Milwaukee.
In Boston, the convergence of two crises—COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on people of color and the national backlash against Floyd’s death—preceded Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s declaration of racism as a public health crisis in June 2020.
Boston created a COVID-19 Health Inequities Task Force in May after discovering what cities across the country had already learned: Communities of color were more likely to experience severe consequences from the disease. Nationally, if you were Black, you were five times more likely to be hospitalized with the disease than if you were White, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On top of that, the non-partisan APM Research Lab pegged the mortality rate among Black people to be approximately 2.3 times higher than for White people.
Floyd’s death on May 25 underscored how police violence and the resulting stress associated with it impacted the health of Black people as a whole.
Though the pandemic and police violence were two distinct threats, it struck Marty Martinez, chief of health and human services for the city of Boston, that they stem from the same cause. With all the talk about health disparities, “it can be easy to forget the role racism plays at the root,” he says.
Floyd’s death and the protests afterward forced America to take a hard, honest look at just how entrenched racism is in everyday life—including public health, Martinez says. “Now there was an opportunity where we were not afraid to call out the racism that we see. I think that there’s power in … calling something out for what it is. Now we have to do something about it.”
Solutions that stick
Passing a resolution that declares racism a public health crisis is one thing. Finding solutions that bring about systemic change is something else.
One movement that has emerged in the uprising since Floyd’s death urges cities to #defundpolice, diverting money from law enforcement toward areas such as education, housing, and social programs.
The conversations have raised questions about whether police should even be responding to certain nonviolent calls, such as those involving wellness checks or mental health where situations can quickly escalate. In June 2020, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller announced an initiative to have social workers, rather than police officers, respond to some calls, such as those pertaining to addiction and mental health.
Cities that are just beginning to focus on the systemic causes of health disparities can also look to programs that have worked in the past to address inequities.
One such program, The Food Trust in Philadelphia, has worked with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and other partners to bring nutritious, locally grown foods into schools, says Brian Lang, director of The Food Trust’s National Campaign for Healthy Food Access.
The organization also advocates for food retail development in areas that don’t have enough supermarkets—often in predominantly Black neighborhoods. In 2001, The Food Trust published research showing that people who lived near supermarkets where they could get fresh food were less likely to be diagnosed with obesity or other diet-related health conditions.
“We published some reports mapping grocery stores and rates of diet-related disease around the city,” says Lang. “And we sort of compared the situation to retail redlining. We said, ‘You guys are chronically disinvesting in some of Philadelphia’s Black communities.’”
Their findings caught the attention of state policymakers who worked with the Trust and a local community development bank called the Reinvestment Fund to create a statewide grocery investment program that provided grants and loans to stores, food trucks, and other entities to bring fresh foods to underserved communities. The fund estimates that the program, now in its 16th year, has provided 400,000 Philadelphia residents with access to healthy foods.
Another effort tackling health care disparities targets maternal health. According to the CDC, Black parents are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white parents, a disparity that increases with age. In May 2018, Baltimore Healthy Start, a nonprofit working to reduce perinatal health disparities, partnered with Vitamin Angels, which provides prenatal vitamins to pregnant people in underserved communities, to also offer nutritional information to expecting parents in Baltimore.
Shermika, 39, who asked to have her last name withheld, participated in the program when she became pregnant with her daughter, Stori, in 2019. Prior to the program, she says, she wanted to learn the best ways to keep herself and her baby healthy. Once she started taking the prenatal vitamins and attending Healthy Start meetings, she says, she learned new eating habits “and what was best for me if I want to still be here for my kids.”
Removing the silos
Health advocates believe that to make real progress in reducing health inequities will require communities getting out of their silos. “We need police officers at the table. We need the community members. We need Black Lives Matter at the table. We need doctors and nurses, we need public health practitioners. We need people from all backgrounds coming together to say, ‘okay, this is what we should do,’” says Collins, dean of the University of New Mexico College of Population Health.
It also means engaging community-based organizations on real and sustainable solutions and interventions, says Fleurant at Emory University School of Medicine. Not only do they know the biggest challenges within these communities, but they also know the people there better and have established trust with them. It’s particularly critical in the Black community, as a Pew Trust survey found that only 35% of Black Americans have “a great deal of confidence” in medical scientists to act in the public’s best interest compared to 43% of White Americans.
Collins says that as regions move forward in their plans to address how racism impacts the health of Black people, some changes might occur relatively quickly, while others may take time.
“We could start seeing things immediately with how we’re training law enforcement and how we’re responding to emergencies,” she says. “Those changes can happen within six months or a year.
“But making a change in how we handle housing opportunities and employment—that’s more of a three- to five-year goal, if not longer. So we’re talking about a decade of having to put forth some really serious effort to make a change.”
Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes regularly about the intersection between health, wealth, and happiness. You can follow them on Twitter: @TamaraEHolmes