The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared racism a “serious threat” to public health. In a statement announcing a health equity initiative on Thursday, the agency acknowledged that racism “negatively affects the mental and physical health of millions of people, preventing them from attaining their highest level of health, and consequently, affecting the health of our nation.”
As part of the initiative to address racism’s impact on public health, the agency plans to study how social determinants (the environments in which we live and work) affect health outcomes for Americans. The CDC said it will also make “new and expanded investments in racial and ethnic minority communities” to address health inequities related to Covid-19 and other health conditions. That includes a $300 million program to fund community health workers to reach out to marginalized communities. The agency has also created a web portal called Racism and Health, which it hopes will spark public discourse. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky wrote in a commentary on the site that she hopes these investments will create a “durable infrastructure that will provide the foundation and resources to address disparities related to Covid-19 and other health conditions.”
The pandemic has exposed many existing inequities in our country and healthcare system, Walensky wrote: “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.”
Public health specialist and physician Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones explained to Scientific American in 2020 how racism, public health and the pandemic have intersected to cause these inequities. “Race doesn’t put you at higher risk. Racism puts you at higher risk,” Phyllis Jones said. “It does so through two mechanisms: People of color are more infected because we are more exposed and less protected. Then, once infected, we are more likely to die because we carry a greater burden of chronic diseases from living in disinvested communities with poor food options [and] poisoned air and because we have less access to health care.”
The CDC has $2.25 billion in funding to address health inequities exacerbated by the pandemic, and Walenski wants to use this as a way to make an impact on other health disparities caused by structural racism.
“We are making a concerted national effort to reach those who have not been reached because we are making ties to local folks and trusted messengers,” she told Time in an interview. “I just really want to make sure that as long as we are doing that effort, and reaching people where they are, that we do so in a way that will allow us to not only vaccinate them for COVID-19 today but vaccinate their children for any missed immunizations and treat their blood pressure and screen them for cancer and do all the things that have been long neglected because they lacked access.”