Why declaring racism a public health crisis matters

Since 2019, policymakers from more than 50 American municipalities and three states have formally highlighted racism as a public health crisis. And on September 3, 2020, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) introduced the Anti-Racism in Public Health Act in Congress.

These kinds of declarations are an important first step because they focus on systems and structures rather than dismiss inequalities as the fault of individuals, said Mary Bassett, François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, in a September 15 Washington Post article. Naming the racist foundations of policies in areas such as housing and employment acknowledges the detrimental effects they have had on racial disparities in health and life expectancy in the U.S., she said.

“There’s never been a time, not a single year, where the [U.S.] population of African descent hasn’t been sicker or died younger than whites,” Bassett said.

This stark statistic is reflected in the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate effect on communities of color. As of late July, Black people, who make up just 13% of the U.S. population, accounted for a quarter of COVID-19 deaths, according to an article in the Autumn 2020 issue of Harvard Medicine.

Quoted in the article, Bassett noted that the pandemic has made clear that taking care of those most at risk for disease is not just morally right but beneficial to everyone’s health. “Helping vulnerable groups is absolutely foundational. It’s the platform on which all levels of society rest,” she said.

Read the Washington Post article: Calls to declare racism a public health crisis grow louder amid pandemic, police brutality

Read the Harvard Medicine article: Who’ll Stop the Rain?

Learn more

Racism is a public health crisis (Harvard Chan School news)