Citing the stark racial health disparities evident before and magnified by the coronavirus pandemic, the Nevada Legislature passed a resolution declaring systemic racism a public health crisis and urging action to address it. Among other steps, the Aug. 5 resolution (SCR 1) requests that federal funding be distributed equitably in direct proportion to disadvantages by individual racial category and requests that the legislature incorporate the topics of systemic racism and structures of racial discrimination into the business of the next regular session.
Lawmakers in several other states, including Arizona, California, Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio, have introduced similar legislation. In New York and North Carolina, legislators have introduced bills to establish commissions, committees or task forces to study the issue of racism.
At least two governors also have taken executive action on the issue. Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) of Michigan issued Executive Directive 2020-09, addressing racism as a public health crisis and directing the Department of Health and Human Services to undertake certain strategies to combat racism and health inequities. And Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak (D) issued a proclamation declaring racism a public health crisis on the same day the state legislature voted to pass SCR 1.
The COVID-19 pandemic has renewed calls to address racial inequities in health across the nation. Black and Indigenous Americans have the highest death tolls from the virus, with the mortality rate for Black Americans more than twice as high as those for white Americans and Asian Americans nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Recognizing the ongoing effects of racism on the health of communities of color, a growing number of cities and counties have already declared racism a public health crisis. Supporters hope these declarations, which often call for a more equitable allocation of resources and strategic action, bring awareness to the issue and advance racial equity.
Racial and ethnic minority groups are at an increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19, but racial differences in health are not new or limited to the novel coronavirus. American Indian and Alaska Native women, for example are two to three times more likely, and Black women are three to four times more likely, to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.
Researchers have found that racism—that is, discrimination based on race or ethnicity—can harm health across lifetimes and generations. Racism can lead to differences in access to resources and opportunities that can be detrimental to health, and has been linked to conditions like low birth weight, high blood pressure and poor health in general, to name a few.
With the pandemic disproportionately affecting communities of color, states and localities will continue to look for ways to close the gaps. These efforts may include bringing attention to health and other disparities and addressing the policies and practices in health care, the justice system, education and other institutions that contribute to these inequities.
Khanh Nguyen is a senior policy specialist in NCSL’s Health Program.
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