This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that racism seriously threatens public health. The move is a major acknowledgment that racism affects people’s health on both large and small scales, and it allows the CDC to allocate funding to help understand and address the issue.
To date, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed at least 500,000 people in the U.S., and many, many others continue to deal with the long-term impacts of the coronavirus. “Importantly, these painful experiences and the impact of COVID-19 are 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,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., M.P.H., said in a statement.
But these disparities were not a result of COVID-19, she said. “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.” Dr. Walensky went on to announce several new initiatives that the CDC is undertaking to address racism’s effects on public health, including more research on the social determinants of health, expanded infrastructure in communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and a new official CDC page dedicated to educating the public about the effects of racism on health.
Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people have a higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes, including death, according to CDC data. Black people are also more likely to die in childbirth, to die from melanoma, and to develop and die from colorectal cancer than white people. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to health disparities marginalized groups face.
Additionally, the long-term stress due to the effects of racism—the stress that simply comes with living in a country where brutal police violence enacted against people of color is a common occurrence, among many other issues—can cause the phenomenon of weathering. An increasing amount of research suggests that the chronic stress of weathering can contribute to the health disparities seen in people of color, particularly Black people.
Racism can show up in the way an individual patient is treated with stigma or bias by their doctor. But it can also show up in the larger structural barriers that, for instance, can make it more difficult for many communities of color to access affordable high-quality health care on an ongoing basis. “These social determinants of health have lifelong negative effects on the mental and physical health of individuals in communities of color,” Dr. Walensky said. “Over generations, these structural inequities have resulted in stark racial and ethnic health disparities that are severe, far-reaching, and unacceptable.”