Addressing unequal impact of COVID-19 requires sound public health strategies that confront racism

Date: Jul 10 2020

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: APHA Media Relations

Washington, D.C., July 10, 2020 – Enacting sound public health strategies and confronting racism is necessary to tackle the unequal impact of COVID-19 in our communities and prepare for the next catastrophe, according to Georges C. Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

Testifying earlier today to members of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Recovery, Benjamin said health disparities that are exacerbated during disasters can be addressed by focusing attention on their root causes from a societal perspective and proactive action from policymakers, resource allocators and societal leaders that address these foundational causes. 

“The health disparities that have occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic have four causative factors: increased exposure, increased susceptibility, social determinants that lead to unequal access to goods and services and racism in all of its forms. These four factors put communities of color at disproportionate risk for getting infected and getting sicker with COVID-19,” said Benjamin. These disproportionate risks are increased during concurrent public health emergencies.

A number of studies reflect the disproportionate toll COVID-19 is taking on some minority populations. For example, Black Americans, who make up 13% of the U.S. population, accounted for 24% of COVID-19 deaths according to an analysis by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other studies have found hospitalization rates for non-Hispanic Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians and Alaska Natives were substantially higher than hospitalization rates for whites. 

“This disparity in the impact of COVID-19 is not surprising in its presence, only in its scope,” Benjamin testified “We can address these disparities through sound public health strategies.”

Those strategies include widespread testing accompanied by adequate contact tracing, and science-based programs for isolation, quarantining and “culturally competent messages and messengers.” 

Moreover, he said it is important to properly collect demographic and occupational data, especially related to race and ethnicity. 

“This information is critical to ensuring that public health authorities and other decisionmakers can make data driven decisions on where to place services and resources to reduce and ultimately eliminate health inequities,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin stressed that we are really facing three epidemics: the COVID-19 epidemic; an “infodemic” of misinformation and disinformation; and an “epidemic of fear.” We are also at risk to confront several other crises including severe storms, wildfires and heat waves, all of which have a disproportionate impact on climate- sensitive communities and whose negative health impact would be additive. The U.S. must act now to confront the overwhelming impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and plan now for any potential co-occurring calamity.

Benjamin said it is essential that Congress substantially increase funding for the CDC’s Public Health Preparedness Cooperative Agreement and the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Hospital Preparedness Program. Public Health Emergency Preparedness funding has decreased from $939 million in fiscal year 2003 to $675 million in fiscal year 2020.

APHA is also calling on Congress to provide $4.5 billion in additional long-term annual mandatory funding for CDC and state, local, tribal and territorial public health agencies for core public health infrastructure activities.

“A strong public health infrastructure and workforce are also essential to helping us reduce health inequities related to COVID-19 and other health threats,” Benjamin said.

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The American Public Health Association champions the health of all people and all communities. We are the only organization that combines a nearly 150-year perspective, a broad-based member community and the ability to influence federal policy to improve the public’s health. Learn more at www.apha.org.