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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Racism is a public health crisis

Rajee headshot

Opinion writer Rajee Ganesan poses for a portrait. Photo courtesy of Rajee Ganesan.

Two deadly viruses are killing Americans: COVID-19 and racism. And when combined, they culminate in even more dangerous health outcomes for Black communities across America. 

Black Americans endure racial discrimination, microaggressions and antagonization from nearly every American institution. It’s visible in the disproportionate incarceration rates, unemployment statistics and home ownership demographics. Unsurprisingly, this disparity appears, too, in one of the systems most vital to public safety: health care.

The U.S. health care system is flawed in the sense that health outcomes differ drastically across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Research shows that racial and ethnic minorities receive lower-quality health care than their white counterparts — even when factors such as insurance status, income and age are comparable.

This, in turn, has led to abysmal statistics concerning the health care of Black individuals. For example, in comparison to white Americans, Black Americans are twice as likely to die from diabetes. In addition, breast cancer death rates are 40 percent higher among Black women than white women. Studies have also shown Black women are three to four times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women. To make matters worse, Black individuals are tested and screened for these conditions far less than white patients.

The lack of universal health insurance has clearly played a role in the current treatment of Black Americans within the U.S. health care system. However, a variety of other factors have impacted these individuals as well, including the systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans, conscious and unconscious bias and a lack of community-wide health care resources and public health proposals. 

And things haven’t changed with the recent pandemic — communities of color, particularly Black Americans, are affected disproportionately by COVID-19. Based on the current data, deaths of Black Americans are nearly two times greater than would be expected based on their population size. Researchers and academics agree that this is due to a legacy of structural discrimination that has limited access to health care for people of color. Furthermore, these individuals often have less access to quality health care and are disproportionately represented in essential frontline jobs.

These issues are only exacerbated by questionable decisions from government officials, such as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s decision to close all but one COVID-19 testing center in the city in response to recent protests. With the gathering of thousands of Black Americans calling for equality and intersectionality, it is imperative now more than ever that these centers remain open. This would allow for consistent testing for Black Americans and their families, ensuring their safety without silencing the movement.

It is no secret that changes must be made across all of America’s institutions in order to ensure justice for Black communities. There are a variety of ways that the health care system can be reformed, such as the expansion of health insurance and coverage for marginalized groups. In addition, Black voices, may it be doctors, nurses or patients themselves, must be amplified and listened to in order to combat biases within the medical community. 

However, government officials can begin by reopening all COVID-19 testing centers, and then moving to expand them — which could be done seamlessly with only a fraction of the budget being used to currently arm and weaponize police forces.