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Williams: There's a war on public health. Losing isn't an option.
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CRISIS OF DENIAL

Williams: There's a war on public health. Losing isn't an option.

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Racism remains alive and well in America, as stubborn as any virus, defying attempts to eradicate it.

Even as Richmond becomes the first city in Virginia to declare racism a public health crisis, joining more than 200 U.S. localities, the national prognosis on public health is grim.

As if the pandemic were not enough, America has declared war on public health — from the gun-wielding fools mowing people down in the Richmond region and nationwide, to elected officials and right-wing pundits serving up their lethal version of Kool-Aid in the form of misinformation about the virus and vaccines.

Meanwhile, the response of GOP lawmakers to the highly infectious delta variant of COVID-19 is not heightened vigilance, but an attempt to wrest control of public health matters from public health officials. According to a story in Sunday’s Washington Post, some state legislatures would allow lawmakers to rescind mask mandates or limit the authority of health officials by passing laws to prevent the closure of businesses.

Meanwhile, public health officials — not unlike voting officials — are being chased from their jobs by incendiary rhetoric that has them enduring insults and threats. During the teeth of the pandemic, from March 2020 to January 2021, nearly 200 public health officials left the profession, according to a story on the web-based MedPage Today.

In a story in Tuesday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch by Chris Suarez and Sabrina Moreno, Jackie Lawrence — director of health equity for the combined health district of Richmond and Henrico County — described as “staggering” some of the disparities in health outcomes for Black families as she spoke about the Richmond City Council resolution.

Too many Black lives are doomed from the start. Lawrence cited an infant mortality rate for Black families that has been more than double the rate for white families.

“The numbers aren’t lying to us. We also have the lived experience of people verbally telling us — qualitative data — that racism is traumatic,” Lawrence said. “Resolutions like this help us understand this is a collective issue.”

Black and white people, who make up roughly the same percentage of Richmond’s population, are experiencing the pandemic in vastly different ways.

Black Virginians are the state’s least-vaccinated group, with predictable results. From June 21 to July 18, Black residents of Richmond accounted for 62% of the city’s COVID-19 cases where race and ethnicity were reported; white city residents accounted for only 14% of the coronavirus cases during that period.

Some readers will argue that the biggest crisis facing Black public health is Black men killing each other with abandon. And indeed, Mayor Levar Stoney declared gun violence a public health crisis following a particularly deadly April in which 13 people were slain.

I don’t know why homicides are trending up in Richmond and other cities, but it’s an agonizing trend, particularly for the communities most affected by the killing. The surges and dips in homicides over the decades are not easily explained by experts, much less laypersons. Everyone has a theory, from the dissolution of the Black family to the spike in gun sales.

One thing is for sure: The stress and isolation of the pandemic, coupled with the puerile and corrosive quality of our politics, is hazardous to anyone’s mental or physical health.

Our decay did not begin with the pandemic in a nation whose structural inequality — race-based, gender-based and economic — has left our temple of democracy in a precarious state.

When blue-collar jobs left America’s cities decades ago, so went upward mobility and a modicum of hope. Mass incarceration surged. Wealth inequality skyrocketed.

Nothing embodies current-day America more than billionaires playing astronaut for no discernable benefit to anyone except wealthy people in search of an exclusive, expensive experience. But at least the nascent space tourism industry is a nod toward science in a nation that too often rejects it.

Temperatures climb and forests combust out west, sending streams of smoke across the continent that pollute our skies. And still, our response lacks urgency, or we do the opposite of what’s prescribed — all in the name of “individual freedom,” which we used to call “selfishness.” Public health is having its “critical race theory” moment, with remedies rebranded as maladies, because some folks don’t like the taste of the medicine.

Meanwhile, American life expectancy is dropping, with Black and Hispanic people disproportionately affected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But white life expectancy dropped more than a year in 2020.

The greatest threat to our health is denial of science, racism and history itself. Until we embrace truth over falsehood, this nation’s condition will remain critical.

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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