Racism is a Public Health Crisis

We’re facing a state of emergency. Not only has the death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic risen above 105,000 in the United States alone, but it seems to be disproportionately lethal for Black Americans. While COVID-19 is still a growing pandemic, it’s unmasking itself as a racial injustice as well.

A growing number of communities are treating racial disparities like these as a public health issue. Last year, Milwaukee declared racism a public health crisis. And this May, amid rising racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths. Franklin County — the largest county in Ohio and home to the state’s capital, Columbus — did the same.

But in the wake of George Floyd’s death and nationwide uprisings that were often met with harsh repression, it’s clear that COVID-19 isn’t the only epidemic disproportionately devastating Black communities. At least 1,252 Black Americans have been shot and killed by the police since 2015.

Columbus is no exception. In 2017, the Columbus Police Department was ranked number one among large U.S. cities whose police forces disproportionately kill Black people.

In the years before Floyd’s death, several incidents traumatized the city’s close-knit Black community.

In December 2018, 16-year old Julius Tate was killed by the Columbus police during a sting operation. Tate’s death also led to his girlfriend, Masonique Sanders, being given a 3-year juvenile sentence in conjunction with Tate’s murder, taking the fall for an injustice many believe the police committed.

By May 29th this year — following George Floyd’s murder, and on what would have been Tate’s 18th birthday — the city was engulfed by protests many felt were overdue.

Although the county had declared racism a health crisis only days earlier, police cracked down harshly. Even elected officials who showed up to support demonstrators — including Columbus city council members and Rep. Joyce Beatty, a 70-year-old African American congresswoman — were maced by police.

Columbus mayor Andrew Ginther imposed a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew that was far more ruthlessly enforced than the state’s prior stay-at-home orders under COVID-19. While Black citizens have been both shot at and arrested for violating curfew, white protestors — including armed protestors outside the Ohio statehouse — were allotted noticeably more privilege while demonstrating against stay-at-home orders.

Protests against police violence continue, but they’ve been red-lined to keep Black demonstrators boxed in — making it much harder to practice basic COVID-19 safety like social distancing. And so the second wave of the coronavirus is closer than we expect, particularly for those protesting racial inequity.

As more and more citizens take to the street to protest these injustices, law enforcement will need to take accountability for their injustices towards African-Americans in order for resolutions — in health and public safety — to be found.

But one thing is clear: In more ways than one, racism is a threat to our public health. Our community — and this country — need to treat it that way.

Jaelani Turner-Williams is a freelance writer from Columbus, Ohio.