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CDC declares racism a 'serious public health threat'

Calling racism "a fundamental driver of racial and ethnic health inequities in the United States" the CDC vowed to invest more in minority communities.

CDC declares racism a 'serious public health threat'
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images/LumiNola

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disproportionately affect communities of color, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared racism a "serious public health threat." Calling racism "a fundamental driver of racial and ethnic health inequities in the United States" in a statement issued Thursday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky vowed to invest more in minority communities. "The impact of COVID-19 is felt, most severely, in communities of color—communities that have experienced disproportionate case counts and deaths, and where the social impact of the pandemic has been most extreme," she said.


"Yet, the disparities seen over the past year were not a result of COVID-19. Instead, the pandemic illuminated inequities that have existed for generations and revealed for all of America a known, but often unaddressed, epidemic impacting public health: racism," Walensky continued. "What we know is this: racism is a serious public health threat that directly affects the well-being of millions of Americans. As a result, it affects the health of our entire nation. Racism is not just the discrimination against one group based on the color of their skin or their race or ethnicity, but the structural barriers that impact racial and ethnic groups differently to influence where a person lives, where they work, where their children play, and where they worship and gather in community."


"These social determinants of health have life-long negative effects on the mental and physical health of individuals in communities of color," she added. According to The Washington Post, the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic has pushed several local and state authorities to label racism a public health emergency that disproportionately impacted communities of color. Experts believe that treating racism as a public health problem is key to get resources to the communities that most need them.


"When one just looks at social-economic status as a filter to decide where to allocate resources, that limits the ability of the problem to be solved, because racism is a substantial contributor to the unequal health outcomes and unequal life expectancy," said Leon McDougle, president of the National Medical Association, a nonprofit that represents Black physicians and patients. According to Ranit Mishori, chief public health officer for Georgetown University and senior medical adviser for Physicians for Human Rights, racism in health can manifest in a number of ways, including housing, education, and other aspects of systemic racism that can contribute negatively to the health of minority populations.


The cumulative stress of exposure to micro-aggressions and biased systems—known as the allostatic load—can also be detrimental to a person's health, Mishori explained. "This ongoing and multigenerational assault causes physiological changes—in how certain hormones are released, for example," she said. Addressing the CDC's statement, Mishori said that while the announcement is an "enormous first step" in the right direction, a much deeper multi-sector approach is required to tackle the issue. "I can't overemphasize how important it is for the head of the CDC to come up and say as a message from the U.S. government that this is important, this needs to be dealt with," Mishori said.


She added that racism "has been and is and will continue to be a foundational issue affecting millions and millions of Americans' lives and health," and that "awareness is not enough, statements are not enough, they need to be followed with actions." Ron Yee, chief medical officer of the National Association of Community Health Centers, also welcomed Walensky's statement, as he believes the announcement is likely to hit home for many of the NACHC's clients, most of whom are from ethnic or racial minorities. "For the public out there and people in these racial or ethnic minorities, it gives them hope that at least somebody is aware," he said.




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