The dictionary defines racism as “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic and political advantage of another.” But according to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the nation’s top medical expert and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, racism can now also be defined as a “serious public health threat.”
In a statement released on April 8, Walensky called out the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on communities of color and the increased number of cases, deaths and other serious social consequences the disease had wrought.
“The disparities seen over the past year were not a result of COVID-19,” Walensky 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.”
“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,” Walensky continued. “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.”
According to Laurel Wamsley of NPR, the result of this is “stark health disparities that have mounted over generations.”
Because of her belief over just how harmful racism might be to public health, Walensky has instructed the CDC to launch a study into the impact of racism on public health. She has also directed physicians and scientists working for her within the agency “to develop interventions and measurable health outcomes in the next year, addressing racism in their respective areas.” According to Wamsley, Walensky’s mandate has been made “a priority for the entire CDC.”
“The CDC also launched a new web portal, Racism and Health, that’s designed to be a hub for public and scientific information and discourse on the subject,” Wamsley reported. “The site notes that racism, in both its structural and interpersonal forms, has a negative effect on mental and physical health.”
In a subsequent interview with Time magazine, Walensky doubled down on her sentiments, saying “the word racism is intentional in this [initiative] for the CDC. This is not just about the color of your skin but also about where you live, where you work, where your children play, where you pray, how you get to work, the jobs you have — all of these things feed into people’s health and their opportunities for health.”