Board members and affiliates of the UCLA Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health and its COVID-19 Task Force on Racism & Equity called Monday for police to stand down and for leaders to stand up and be counted in their opposition to racism.
Bita Amani, an assistant professor in the Department of Urban Public Health at Charles Drew University and an affiliate of the UCLA group, accused law enforcement authorities of taking advantage of the pandemic to increase investment in law enforcement and militarize their response.
“Racialized risk of dying, constant police surveillance and economic devastation were matches in a tinder box,” Amani told her colleagues during a Zoom call organized by the UCLA group. “Today, we not only see increases in COVID-related death amongst communities of color, but also helicopters, tanks, riot gear, tear gas and rubber bullets … and real bullets.
“We hear law enforcement throughout the country implying that such a thing as public health policing exists, justifying the expansion of their local budgets and referencing tools such as contact tracing that they believe can be used to fight crime or, more accurately, to fight dissent.”
Dr. Camara Jones, an epidemiologist and past president of the American Public Health Association, expressed similar sentiments.
“The police need to stand down,” Jones said. “Police are provoking people as we are trying to gather with our righteous anger and our grief. Our right to dissent, our right to speak and to mobilize should not be provoked by an increasing police presence and National Guard to protect property over lives.”
Collins Airhihenbuwa, the president of U-Rise, LLC and member of the group’s executive board, said as police stand down, leaders need to take sides.
“The bottom line really is, for leaders to stand up means you have to take a side. You can either be on the side of racism or you are on the side of anti-racism. There is no space in between. Silence means we can only assume you belong to racism. This is the time for leaders to take a stand.”
Nancy Krieger, an epidemiologist with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, pointed to inadequacies in the health care system and social safety net and said public health officials also have to take sides.
“This is a moment where people in public health need to stand up for social justice, for health equity,” Krieger said.
She pointed to “mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic … and then the economic devastation that has come with having jobs just vanish instead of having government actually pay employers to keep people employed, instead tossing everyone on unemployment. This is not the way other countries manage these affairs.”
The COVID-19 death rate for members of minority communities, and particularly for black residents, is much higher than for white residents. In Los Angeles County, the death rate among black people is more than double that of white residents, according to data collected by the county’s Department of Public Health.
Unequal access to health care resulting in underlying health conditions such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes and asthma play a significant role in those outcomes.
“This is a moment to say it can be different and we must make it so,” Krieger said.
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