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The pandemic, the protests, and why racism endures as a public health crisis

My daddy used to say: When America gets the sniffles, Black people catch pneumonia. My dad didn’t invent the saying but he used it to explain everything from the war on drugs to the 1990s national recession. Even as a child I knew what he meant. In other words, the country’s history of institutional racism and unjust policies make every part of Black life — including economic growth, fair housing, health care access and more — exponentially harder than it is for others. Today, as worldwide protests against police brutality continue and COVID-19 ravages the Black community, we see clearly that old sayings are so often repeated because they bear truth.

The pandemic, a danger for all, is lethal for Black people, who’ve died at a rate of 61.6 per 100,000 people, compared with 26.2 for whites. Yet, this peril is not new. We’ve been brutalized for generations. The murders of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and George Floyd, to name but a few, are only an extension of plantation overseer violence and Klan lynchings that have been hallmarks of our 400-year existence in America. In recent weeks, the streets have erupted because structural racism is — and has long been — the public health crisis that no masks, sanitizer, or social distancing can remedy.

With widespread mandated sheltering and business shutdowns, the serious and potentially deadly infection — caused by a virus for which there is no known cure, vaccine or treatment — has meant lost income or job loss for some and, for others, a huge inconvenience. But research shows that Black people are much more likely not only to get infected with COVID-19 — but to die from the disease because racism undergirds our health care systems, workplace policies, and the environment. Indigenous and Latino communities are also more vulnerable.

That’s not because we are, as a race, doing something to cause infection. We’re not to blame. Nor is it because we’re unhealthy as a group, or because of something in our biology.

Why Are Black Communities Hit Hardest?

Institutional racism is the pre-existing condition that has left Black communities far more vulnerable to COVID-19 than others. While many think the racist barriers to Black people’s rights and freedom came to a close with the end to enslavement, they have not only persisted — but grown more entrenched. From Jim Crow segregation, voting and housing discrimination, to heavy-handed policing, generation after generation of targeted bigotry has led to a lack of equity in health care, housing, education, and opportunity. For example, for Black people who work in the service sector; their jobs put them at greater risk of getting COVID-19 — as does the environment. These circumstances are not the result of bad luck or poor choices; they’re created by a long legacy of racist policies that have put Black people in harm’s way and made our communities more at risk from the virus that causes COVID-19 than white people.

Of course, chief among the risk factors is the barrier to health care access. Black people who work in low-wage jobs usually lack insurance, leading to delayed or bypassed essential health care services — because of the cost. We’re also more likely to live farther away from medical care and face language barriers. And Black people and other folks of color are distrustful of health care professionals because of historical mistreatment. The U.S medical establishment has a history of exploiting Black folks, Latinos, and Indigenous people by performing medical experiments on them without consent, and even stealing their dead bodies from the grave for research and profit.

Why Racism Is a Public Health Issue

Public health is built on the principle of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities. Police violence is antithetical to that mission.

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Barriers to preventive health care — again, a primary outcome of structural racism in the U.S. — mean Black and Latinx communities also have higher rates of health issues like diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease. People with chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes were hospitalized six times more often than otherwise healthy individuals infected with the coronavirus during the first four months of the pandemic, and they died 12 times more often, according to a new report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The public health disaster facing Black communities is the result of hundreds of years of U.S. policies that bolster white supremacy and marginalize Black people. But the pandemic is just a single symptom of the nation’s public health disaster. What is being played out over the past few weeks, as people take to the streets to protest a national pattern of violent over-policing, is another.

Why Planned Parenthood Supports Defunding the Police

Continued militarization of police and brutal treatment of Black people runs counter to the values upheld and advanced by Planned Parenthood: caring for people’s bodies, lives, and futures. Everyone deserves to live in a world where people are equally protected, and have the resources they need to be healthy and safe.

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Why Protest During a Pandemic?

Just as structural racism created fertile ground for COVID-19 to take root in the Black community, it has also helped plant the groundswell of pro-Black organizing across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder May 25. Black people, for whom racial profiling and stop-and-frisk policies are a way of life, don’t need a viral video to prove their realities; police have killed roughly 1,000 people a year since 2015, according to The Washington Post’s real time police shooting data base. While many outside the Black community see the recent spate of killings at the hands of police as random and unrelated — “a few bad apples,” so to speak — the pandemic and police brutality are two crises inextricably linked. Both are killing us. And both seem to be unrelenting.

It’s Shakespearean that as he lay dying — a white police officer nonchalantly kneeling on his throat, Floyd can be heard in a plaintive whisper: “I can’t breathe.”

Black America has long been suffocated by racist and dehumanizing policies. Certainly protests have erupted in the past, in response to the brutal murders of Black people by the police — notably, the 2014 murders of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in St. Louis. But none have gripped the national and global attention of what is happening now. The volume and breadth of outrage is magnified — at least, in part — because the added dimension of COVID-19 deaths has created a perfect storm.

Unlike Ferguson demonstrations, for example, when protesters of late carry placards that read “Stop Killing Us,” the statement has implications far broader than police violence. And the simple phrase, Black Lives Matter, hits different now, too. There will always be detractors and deniers who reflexively counter that “all lives matter.” But there’s a new resonance to the BLM phrase, and wider acceptance among white Americans of what it means to “matter” — and with it, a deeper awareness of the unjust conditions that disproportionately keep the rest of the world from understanding all the ways that Black lives matter.

We Demand More

Join us in demanding that the Senate support women and families who are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic — and do it ASAP. Our futures depend on it.

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Tags: Health Equity, covid-19, Black Lives Matter, Public Health

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