The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called racism a serious threat to public health Thursday in a statement, responding to the glaring racial inequities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic that has resulted in the death of over 500,000 Americans.
“Across this country people are suffering,” CDC chief Rochelle Walensky said. “Importantly, these painful experiences and the impact of COVID-19 are felt, most severely, in communities of color.”
Walensky commented on the disproportionate case counts and deaths in communities of color “where the social impact of the pandemic has been most extreme.”
She also acknowledged that 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.”
Walensky addressed the structural barriers that impact racial and ethnic groups and influence where a person lives, where they work, where their children play, and where they worship and gather.
“These social determinants of health have life-long negative effects on the mental and physical health of individuals in communities of color,” Walensky said. “Over generations, these structural inequities have resulted in stark racial and ethnic health disparities that are severe, far-reaching and unacceptable.”
The CDC chief said the agency would take steps to address an issue affecting “the health of our entire nation.” She highlighted several new efforts the CDC is leading to accelerate its work.
Walensky said the agency was using COVID-19 funding to address the disparities by investing in communities of color and other disproportionately affected groups. She also said she challenged all offices and centers under the CDC to develop interventions and measurable health outcomes to address racism in their respective areas. Walensky said the CDC launched a new “Racism and Health” web portal to “serve as a catalyst for public health and scientific discourse around racism and health,” with the hope of holding the agency accountable and drawing more attention to the issue.
In June, former mayor Marty Walsh declared racism a public health crisis in Boston. More than 170 local and state leaders, as well as public health agencies, have made similar declarations, according to the American Public Health Association. In November, the American Medical Association declared racism a public health threat.