Movement Grows to Declare Racism a Public Health Emergency
In the wake of nationwide protests sparked by police and vigilante murders of African Americans, as well as a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted Black and Hispanic communities, cities, counties and states across the country are moving to declare racism a public health emergency.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin was the first U.S. city to make such a declaration in 2019, and more than 20 other counties and cities have followed suit, according to PEW. Legislation is pending on the state level in Ohio and Michigan, The Guardian reported. The movement is gaining momentum in response to the new coronavirus and weeks of racial justice protests, but builds on decades of evidence that racism harms the health of African Americans.
"Racism is a pandemic just like Covid-19 is a pandemic," pastor Samuel Casey, a community activist who helped pass a declaration in San Bernardino, California, told The Guardian. "But we've been dealing with the coronavirus for, what, four months? We've had systematic oppression for 400-plus years."
The statistics prompting the declarations are alarming, PEW pointed out. The life expectancy of African Americans is four years below the U.S. average. Black women are up to four times more likely than white women to die in complications related to pregnancy and Black men are more than two times more likely than white men to be killed by police. These disparities have been driven home by the spread of COVID-19, which is killing African Americans at 2.3 times the rate it kills Asian and white Americans, according to the most recent figures from the APM Research Lab.
Racism drives these different outcomes in a number of ways. One major factor is environmental racism: housing discrimination means minority communities are more likely to be exposed to toxic or carcinogenic chemicals in their air and water, The Guardian pointed out. But the experience of racism itself can also deteriorate the health of those targeted by it, as FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard director Mary Bassett told The Guardian. Discrimination-induced stress has been linked to more rapid development of heart disease generally and to chronic low-grade inflammation in Black women. Some scientists think the lifelong experience of racism speeds up aging through a process called "weathering."
"Of course, the answer to all this is not sending everyone on a yoga retreat – though that wouldn't be so bad. We still need to address the structural issues," Bassett said.
While these issues long predate recent events, the disease and the protests have opened a window for action.
In Cleveland, Ohio for example, city officials introduced the resolution in early March.
"Getting support for this sort of legislation isn't easy … Now, everybody is on board," Cleveland council member Basheer Jones, who introduced the legislation, told The Guardian.
One politician recently moved to action was Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who declared racism a public health crisis Friday, as NPR reported. He pledged to transfer $3 million from the city police department's overtime budget to public health.
"We're determined to accelerate our work towards systemic change," Walsh said in a press conference. "What I'm announcing today is the beginning."
The money being transferred is less than one percent of the Boston police's annual $414 million budget, and Brock Satter of Mass Action Against Police Brutality called it a "pittance," but said it was a step in the right direction.
"Keep it coming," he told NPR.
Generally, some activists have challenged the public health crisis declarations for being largely symbolic.
Such a declaration passed by the Indianapolis City-County Council in June was criticized by community groups for having "no true depth," the Indianapolis Star reported.
"Rather than direct resources to address the [food] deserts that have existed for years, city leadership hides behind resolutions and meaningless actions with no real city commitment to addressing the systemic racism that has created the deserts," the Baptist Minister's Alliance, the National Action Network of Indiana and the Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis said in a joint statement. "There are no economic commitments to positively impacting the black community."
However, others say the resolutions can create the conditions to facilitate more concrete actions.
"If you declare something an emergency, you're also saying it's imperative to address the problem,"Johns Hopkins School of Medicine professor and infectious disease expert Dr. Allison Agwu told The Guardian.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
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