There is momentum behind this idea. Across the country, cities and states have declared racism a public health crisis. The American Academy of Family Physicians has also called for the declaration of a public health emergency. Last year, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Barbara Lee proposed a bill that would instruct the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) to create a center addressing the impact of racism on public health. The White House has created a Covid-19 health equity task force that will make recommendations to improve the federal government’s data on racial disparities and its response to them.
Studies and recommendations are good, but communities of color need action now, and a declaration by H.H.S. that racism is a public health emergency would have immediate impact. Under the Public Health Service Act, the declaration would allow HHS to allocate resources and personnel to tackle the issue, much like it has for the pandemic as a whole and for the opioid crisis. For instance, the it could allow workers from hard hit communities of color who lost their jobs because they had to take time off after becoming ill to use National Health Emergency Demonstration Grants to find employment.
It’s true that and policies designed for individuals of particular races may face legal challenges. But the programs that flow from a declaration that racism is a public health crisis could avoid this by targeting communities rather than individuals.