Racism is a public health crisis, health systems say

City Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier (District 3)— photo courtesy of jamieforwestphilly.com

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — Racism is a public health crisis, according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and dozens of other health organizations.

Healthcare Anchor Network, made up of more than 40 health systems across the U.S. including CHOP, said in a statement last week that systemic racism poses “a real threat to the health of our patients, families, and communities.”

“Systemic racism results in generational trauma and poverty, while also unquestionably causing higher rates of illness and death in Black and Indigenous communities and communities of color,” the group said.

While acknowledging the police killings of George Floyd and other African Americans, Healthcare Anchor Network said the trauma of systemic racism “adds to the historical injustices that have disproportionately affected communities of color.”

Gilbert Davis, vice president and chief diversity officer at CHOP, said in a statement that the city-based hospital wants to work with the community to combat racism, inequality and discrimination.

“No one individual or institution can do this alone, and we are committed to listening to our neighbors of color and implementing initiatives that will help to eradicate all forms of discrimination,” Davis said.

The organizations that make up the Healthcare Anchor Network, which include the Philadelphia-based Einstein Healthcare Network, committed to addressing racism and the health disparities it creates, including re-examining their policies, hiring locally, and promoting leaders of color.

During the past 12 months, scores of states and counties and at least three states have declared racism a public health crisis, according to the American Public Health Association.

Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, director of the division of chronic disease and injury prevention at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, agreed.

“We have seen this very blatantly with COVID,” Bettigole said. “Primarily, the worst outcomes — in terms of what we know — are among Black and Latino city residents, and, of course, people that are older are our highest risk groups.”

She said people of color are less likely to have the option of working from home, and have the ability to consistently protect themselves with personal protective equipment at work, among other things.

African Americans have the highest case count of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, making up 42.2% of Philadelphia cases, and account for the most hospitalizations (54.4%), according to city data.

When it comes to COVID-19 deaths in the city, Black Philadelphians are first, accounting for 48% of all fatalities.

In June the Philadelphia Board of Health recognized the “central role that historical and current racism plays in harming the health and well-being of African-Americans,” according to a released statement.

“African-Americans suffer higher rates of nearly every adverse outcome – from heart disease to cancer to violence and even the recent epidemic of COVID-19 infection – owing to the impact of racism on social disadvantage through inadequate education, discrimination in employment and housing, poverty, mass incarceration, residential segregation, and racial trauma,” the board of health said in the statement.

The board of health also noted the daily racial trauma that African Americans experience, particularly from recent police violence.

African Americans also disproportionately makeup homicide and shooting victims compared to their share of the city’s population.

As of Monday, the city had 355 homicides this year, 86% of which were Black Philadelphians (305), according to the Philadelphia Police Department. African Americans also accounted for 85% of all shooting victims in the city so far in 2020. Blacks make up approximately 42% of the city’s population.

African Americans in Philadelphia had the second highest poverty rate in 2019 (26.7%), behind Hispanics and Latinos at 40.2%, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data.

Racism also has a negative effect on an individual throughout his life, Bettigole said. African Americans are more likely to describe their health as “fair” or “poor” than their white counterparts.

“If you live in a neighborhood that is violent and has a lot of unhealthy products that are marketed to you all the time, it’s just much harder to live a healthy life,” Bettigole said.

In recent years, health experts have come to label chronic health conditions in neighborhoods, such as diabetes or high rates of tobacco use, as symptoms of a community rather than health behaviors, Bettigole said.

“When you see a high diabetes rate in a neighborhood, that’s a symptom of what that neighbor looks like on the ground,” Bettigole said.

Lauren Cox, a spokeswoman for the Kenney administration, said in an email that Mayor Jim Kenney has “spoken numerous times during his time in office about the pervasive effects of systemic racism in this city and nation.”

Since taking office in 2016, Cox said the administration has worked to create more diversity and inclusion in city government; and passed the 1.5-cent-per-ounce beverage tax on soda and other sugary drinks to fund the city’s pre-kindergarten program, Community Schools, and an infrastructure program, among other things.

After the killing of Floyd in May, Cox noted the mayor also launched a steering committee to explore structural issues that affect people of color, and earmarked funding for small businesses and minority-owned businesses to rebuild after the summer’s protests.

City Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier (District 3) said there was “no question that racism is a public health emergency.”

Gautheir, a Democrat, said public policy has created substandard conditions for Black people since slavery, including policies around housing, education, jobs and access to healthcare.

“Declaring racism a public health crisis is an acknowledgment of not just the dire conditions being faced by Black communities,” Gauthier said, “but also the current circumstances that have resulted from … hundreds of years of racist policy.”

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.