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To be Black in America in 2020 is to fight to survive two simultaneous pandemics — coronavirus and violence against Black people. The common thread needling both pandemics? America’s long history of structural racism and white supremacy.

This week forced a national reckoning, as these two public health crises collided at protests across the country. With the backdrop of coronavirus, a global pandemic that has disproportionately killed Black people, the brutal murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd rocked the country out of lockdown and into the streets to fight for Black lives. Protesters have continuously showed up by the thousands to demand the right to breathe while Black in a country that espouses freedom and liberty as its greatest values.

Well before this moment, health experts across the country have declared anti-Blackness and racism in the United States a public health crisis. But the dire truth of that declaration has never been more clear than it is today when the greatest threat facing Black Americans is not the deadly coronavirus, but the very racism that makes it so lethal.

Reports released last month revealed the coronavirus mortality rate for Black Americans is nearly three times higher than the rate for white people. Meanwhile, being murdered by the police is a leading cause of death for young Black men in America. These chilling, side-by-side facts beg the question: would our lawmakers care and do more if white families were being disproportionately impacted by these two simultaneous pandemics?

Would they have charged all four police officers for murder? Would they have passed more robust relief measures expanding access to health care? Bolstered testing centers, instead of closing them to deter Black protestors? Provided frontline workers with adequate PPE? Would they have haphazardly reopened the economy while coronavirus still runs rampant?

We know the answers. When lawmakers realized who was dying at the hands of these two pandemics, too many of them stopped caring.

Endless examples borrowed from our country’s history make this point. Over a decade after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and displaced thousands, nearly one in three Black residents have not returned. When the people of Flint, Michigan, were exposed to lead-polluted water, our federal and state governments failed to protect the majority-Black community. And when the “War on Drugs” incarcerated and destroyed Black communities, white people grappling with opioid addiction were instead met with rehabilitation, legislation and public health-informed trainings for police.

And now, history is repeating itself once again. States are reopening without protecting the people most vulnerable to the virus. And police continue to murder Black Americans in broad daylight.

So where do we go from here? How do we fight America’s perpetual pandemic? How do we dismantle hundreds of years of oppression and change the systemic inequities that got us to where we are today?

There will never be a simple answer. But as doctors and health advocates, we will continue to examine how racism is embedded in our health care system and fight to expand access to affordable, quality health care for Black Americans.

As a nation reeling from extraordinary trauma, we must use our power in November to hold our national, state and local elected officials accountable for the brutality and loss inflicted by our racist structures. We must bring the powerful activism seen at protests across the country to the ballot box to elect leaders who not only believe in justice, but who have real plans in place to change the systems that enable and embolden white supremacy. 

Our fight for a better public health system in the United States must center ending violence against Black people. It must center ending the deprivation of state resources to Black communities that is endemic to this country’s politics. It must prioritize community building. Without that, there will be no public health for Black people in America.


Rosemary Enobakhare is the Campaign Director of Health Care Voter

Dr. Oliver Brooks is the President of the National Medical Association