The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday became the largest U.S. health agency to identify racism as a “serious public health threat” and commit to take steps to mitigate its effect.
Launching an initiative called Racism and Health, the CDC pinpointed racism as a “fundamental” cause of “health inequities, health disparities and disease.” COVID-19, the agency noted on its website, has thrown this fact into sharp relief. The coronavirus pandemic has been felt “most severely” in communities of color, which have experienced a disproportionate number of cases and deaths, the CDC said.
As the nation’s leading public health agency, the CDC also acknowledged the “critical role” it must play to address the health effects of racism.
The agency said it was committed to tackling this systemic issue by undertaking a number of measures, including continuing to study the effects of racism on health outcomes, using COVID-19 funding to address disparities in minority communities related to the coronavirus and other health conditions, and increasing diversity within the agency itself.
In an interview with Time magazine, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that although this isn’t the first time the agency has acknowledged the connection between racism and health inequities, its new initiative marks a shift in focus for the CDC, moving from observation to action.
“The word racism is intentional in this [initiative] for the CDC. This is not just about the color of your skin but also about where you live, where you work, where your children play, where you pray, how you get to work, the jobs you have. All of these things feed into people’s health and their opportunities for health,” Walensky told the magazine.
Walensky, who became the CDC director in January, added that she’s made it clear to her employees that racism must be tackled agency-wide.
“It has to be baked into the cake; it’s got to be part of what everybody is doing,” she said.
As NBC News noted, dozens of other public health agencies and medical organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association, have identified racism as a public health threat in recent months.
“[Racism] negatively impacts and exacerbates health inequities among historically marginalized communities,” Willarda Edwards, an AMA board member, said in November. “Without systemic and structural-level change, health inequities will continue to exist, and the overall health of the nation will suffer.”