In the last few weeks, we have seen a tremendous increase in awareness about racial inequality in America. Fortunately, progress is occurring at an accelerating pace thanks to the tireless efforts of protesters and activists. Because of our country’s history, protesting is deeply symbolic of our core American identity, as it represents our defiance towards injustice and wrongdoing. Now more than ever, it’s our duty to exercise our rights to speech by protesting for equality. However, due to the unfortunate intersection of this movement with the spread of the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement is being impacted in many ways. Some have raised concerns that the environment of protesting (closely-packed areas, shouting, and tear gas) can cause COVID-19 to spread faster between people, causing new outbreaks of cases. While protesters should indeed take precautions by wearing face masks and avoiding close contact, they certainly shouldn’t stop advocating for equality. Actually, holding protests can actually advance our public health on a societal level. To understand why, we must understand how public health inequalities have affected black communities.
Racial disparities in public health
Caused by systemic inequalities and racism, health disparities manifest in health outcomes that differ between degrees of privilege. As an example of this, one needs to look no further than the most basic measure of well-being—life expectancy—to see that African Americans, on average, enjoy almost 7 less years of life than other races.
These inequalities are present in almost every aspect of public health research, and COVID-19 is no exception. Indeed, the CDC reports that the age-adjusted hospitalization rate is 5 times higher in African-Americans than non-Hispanic white people. It’s truly disturbing that an immutable phenotype, like skin color, can affect someone’s likelihood of death.
To understand why this inequality occurs, we must first outline the factors responsible for it. Negative social determinants of health, such as increased exposure to pollutants, dangerous working conditions, and incarceration, affect black people more than any ethnic group. These environmental factors can lead to comorbidities, which have been shown to exacerbate severe effects of COVID-19. Additionally, intergenerational poverty can make treatments too expensive, leading to a disconnect between the healthcare system and vulnerable communities. Finally, implicit and explicit forms of discrimination from healthcare providers can render services that are “available” inaccessible.
Health should be considered a human right—not just a privilege of one’s skin color. What can we change about these unequal outcomes?
The first step in enacting change must be spreading awareness: an awareness that on a societal level, greater degrees of privilege are systematically linked to better health outcomes, and that this trend must be equalized. As more and more people become aware of this disturbing health inequality, health providers, nonprofit organizations, and businesses will mobilize in taking active steps to uplift marginalized communities. Meanwhile, as individuals, we can continue to protest, spread awareness, and donate to nonprofit organizations.
Returning back to the matter at hand—how COVID-19 has affected BLM protests—we can now understand the issue in greater light. Protests are deepening our society’s understanding of racial inequality; due to this awareness, people are becoming more active to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations. For example, the Barr Foundation recently donated $1.3 million to support Black communities being impacted by COVID-19. True, much progress has yet to have been achieved, but hopefully, by helping those falling through the cracks of our current system, we can advocate for a more just world.
Featured image source Unsplash.
Holmes, Laurens, et al. Black–White Risk Differentials in COVID-19 (SARS-COV2) Transmission, Mortality and Case Fatality in the United States: Translational Epidemiologic Perspective and Challenges. no. 12, p. 4322. MDPI AG, doi:10.3390/ijerph17124322. Accessed 20 July 2020.
Simon, Mallory. Over 1,000 Health Professionals Sign A Letter Saying, Don’t Shut Down Protests Using Coronavirus Concerns As An Excuse. 5 June 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/05/health/health-care-open-letter-protests-coronavirus-trnd/index.html.
Health Disparities By Race And Ethnicity – Center For American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2020/05/07/484742/health-disparities-race-ethnicity/. Accessed 20 July 2020.