The Power of Introducing Racism as a Public Health Crisis Policies

September 29, 2021
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This is the first installment of the APHA HA Section–Public Health Management to Practice series. We will begin to discuss the significance of introducing racism as a public health crisis. Due to the nature of this topic, it will be delivered in three parts to capture the background of this work, application, and implications for pandemic response. Jeanette Kowalik is the former Commissioner of Health for the City of Milwaukee, and in the podcast below, she shares and reflects on being part of the first jurisdiction in the country to do this important and necessary work and apply it to the pandemic response.

APHA Past-President, Dr. Camara Jones declared racism as a public health crisis in 2016. Since then, the quest to make formal declarations was sluggish. A state affiliate crafted a resolution for the state of Wisconsin. In 2019, Milwaukee County’s Office of African American Affairs issued the first local level declaration in May of that year. This set the stage for the City of Milwaukee, the most diverse and segregated area in the country to make the declaration as a policy level intervention. At that time, city leadership collaborated on the declaration which included five action items to be accomplished within one year. The city’s Common Council and Mayor approved the declaration in July of 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020. Milwaukee was able to leverage its enhanced understanding of the role of racism and prioritized the need to understand how COVID-19 was impacting BIPOC residents. Within the first month of the pandemic response, Milwaukee was able to publicly show who was being most impacted by COVID-19, its Black community. Resources were limited. Local partners provided resources to slow the spread of COVID-19 in BIPOC neighborhoods. Milwaukee’s efforts in health equity also prompted other places to share their data on COVID-19 disparities to adjust prevention messaging and allocation of resources nationwide. Additionally, the Black Lives Matter movement expanded post the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among others. Prior to this, only 14 local jurisdictions declared racism as a public health crisis. As of January 2021, over 150 jurisdictions have made the declaration.

In this 3-part podcast miniseries, current HA Section Chair, Dr. Michele McCay, and Dr. Jeanette Kowalik discuss the significance of these declarations and what action can and should look like beyond words on paper.  

View the podcast

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