Why racism is a public health crisis

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On May 25, 2020, the world was already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic with a lockdown with no end in sight, when a video taken on a bystander’s cellphone went viral of a man being arrested by several police officers, put on the road in a prone position and one officer kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes, even after he lost consciousness and posed no threat to anyone.

Unfortunately, like many such egregious acts by law enforcement, this incident didn’t end well, and an innocent African-American man lost his life because of police brutality. In the midst of a deadly pandemic, protesters have taken to the streets to show solidarity for George and others who have met similar fates, which in itself will become another public health crisis as COVID-19 cases will rise again, because of lack of social distancing and not all protesters wearing masks. To add to the misery, there are injuries from rubber bullets and tear gas by law enforcement agents who are deployed to break up demonstrators and prevent widespread looting.

Racism is a public health crisis and should be taken seriously, like the way diseases are. Study after study has shown that implicit biases and internalized racism has led to people of color having less access to health care, less access to preventive care, and increased mortality rates.

For instance, African American and Native American women are more likely to die from pregnancy-related deaths than white women. Implicit biases are one of the many reasons why these women are dying at such alarming rates. Minorities are also likely to have much higher rates of diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease.

We all remember the Flint water crisis, where the residents were getting sick from toxic water full of lead from corroded pipes. The crisis has never been resolved to this day. The population of Flint is more than 50 percent minorities, so it should not be surprising that little was done to fix the water supply. Had this community been more affluent and majority white, I am inclined to believe the outcome would have been different.

Until our governments, legislators, and the medical community do not realize that racism is a public health crisis as much as it is a social justice issue, this stain on society will not go away.

Rabia Jalal is a physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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