New York City has declared racism a public health crisis—joining more than 200 municipalities, health agencies, and officials across the country calling for efforts to address racism's impact on health and advance health equity.
Health organizations aim to address racism's effect on health
According to the American Public Health Association, various entities and elected officials have called out racism's detrimental health effects and announced efforts to address it.
For example, CDC director Rochelle Walensky in April declared racism "a serious public health threat that directly affects the well-being of millions of Americans" and "the health of [the] entire nation"—calling attention the pandemic's disproportionate impact on communities of color.
To address the effects of racism on health outcomes, Walensky said CDC planned to make new investments in racial and ethnic minority communities and expand internal efforts to foster greater diversity. In addition, CDC launched a "Racism and Health" portal to bring attention to how racism impacts illness rates and life expectancy among different groups.
In addition, the American Medical Association (AMA) in May released a report acknowledging its own troubling history and pledging to "play a more prominent role" in advancing health equity. In the report, AMA outlined a three-year action plan, which included embedding social and racial justice in all areas of the organization and building alliances with historically marginalized and minoritized physicians and stakeholders.
In a statement, AMA president Gerald Harmon said while the organization has a lot of work to do, its plan is "a step forward in a much longer journey."
NYC declares racism a public health crisis
The New York City Board of Health on Monday declared racism a public health crisis and passed a resolution calling for the NYC Health Department to ensure a "racially just recovery" from the Covid-19 pandemic, the New York Times reports.
According to David Chokshi, NYC's health commissioner, the Covid-19 pandemic has "magnified inequities, leading to suffering disproportionately borne by communities of color in our city and across our nation."
"Why do some nonwhite populations develop severe disease and die from Covid-19 at higher rates than whites?" Chokshi said. "Underlying health conditions undoubtedly play a role. But why are there higher rates of hypertension, diabetes and obesity in communities of color? The answer does not lie in biology. Structural and environmental factors such as disinvestment, discrimination, and disinformation underlie a greater burden of these diseases in communities of color."
In the resolution, the board asked the city's health department to work with other agencies to address systemic racism within policies, plans, and budgets that affect health, including land use, transportation, and education. According to Axios, the board also directed the department to research its own historical biases and "participate in a truth and reconciliation process with communities harmed by these actions when possible."
In addition, the NYC Health Department will make recommendations to Mayor Bill de Blasio's Racial Justice Commission and establish a Data for Equity internal working group aimed at applying an "equity lens" to public health data, the Times reports.
Michelle Morse, CMO and a deputy commissioner at the health department, said while the resolution is "a hopeful milestone," it's only one piece of a much larger puzzle, the Times reports.
"One of the ways that racism is expressed at a policy level is inaction in the face of need," Morse said. She said updating the city's health code and investing in disadvantaged areas were key strategies in the resolution's plan.
Separately, Kitaw Demissie, dean of the School of Public Health at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, agreed that the resolution was a good start. "I like the idea, that they're focusing on this issue," he said. "Now the most important thing is to see its implementation, to see the investment, and to see the changes that are going to come."
He added, "Covid-19 was like a magnifying glass for us to see what has already been in existence for a long time. Racial/ethnic disparities in health have been a pandemic." (Zraick, New York Times, 10/19; Falconer, Axios, 10/19)