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Should racism be declared a public health crisis? Gov. Northam, state leaders say yes

RICHMOND, Va. – For many, the global coronavirus pandemic is the worst health crisis in a generation. From the crisis emerged a focus on another emergency, one ignored for centuries: racism.

As a nation, the reckoning on race has led to major changes and brought renewed attention to the ways systems and institutions disadvantage people of color. WSLS 10 News has been dedicated to highlighting these issues as part of our 20/20 Focus: A Push for Equality.

Our latest story questions whether racism should be declared a public health crisis.

“There are fears and concerns that those of us who come from marginalized communities have that our brothers and sisters on the other side don’t think about,” explained Dr. Deneen Evans.

Owner of Mosaic Mental Wellness & Health, Dr. Evans acknowledges the trauma racism has caused on many generations of color.

“We have to start looking at race as a public health issue because it does impact health on a medical/physical side as well as a societal/systemic side," stated Dr. Evans. “The trauma, the health effects, the economic upheaval that happens – it is legitimate, and they do need to start looking at a framework that would make it acceptable in the medical field and social science field.”

Treating racism as a public health crisis is not a new practice. In fact, many states and cities have made the declaration. According to the American Public Health Association, at least 26 states or cities have done so by allocating resources and strategic action to combat racism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also provides guidance on this topic.

“When we accept it as a public health issue, we start putting research money behind it. We start changing policy. We start looking at it differently, and you’ll see changes," said Dr. Evans.

Del. Lashrecse Aird represents Virginia’s 63rd district in the House of Delegates. Part of the General Assembly’s special session, Del. Aird introduced a resolution that would formally acknowledge racism as a public health crisis in the Commonwealth.

“Virginia is responsible for a lot of the racism here in the country," said Del. Aird. "This is ground zero. To me, what that means is our systems in place need to be checked and assessed.”

In her proposed legislation much like in other areas, Aird says systems would immediately be put in place to address “systemic inequities,” as she describes it.

However, the real change, she believes, starts at home to alter mentalities.

“Until we change the hearts and minds of people and how they choose to act and engage with one another, it doesn’t matter what policies we change, it doesn’t matter what laws we create," said Del. Aird. “It’s so much bigger than that.”

WSLS 10 News questioned Gov. Ralph Northam on the issue while speaking at an event in South Boston.

“We talked about that very issue that racism is a health crisis issue. We’re looking at a proclamation. That starts with leadership and a message that comes from the Governor and other individuals. It’s something that I’m discussing with that advisory board. I’ll work with Del. Aird and I think you’ll see more in that regard,” commented Gov. Northam.

In his own effort to combat racism, Gov. Northam signed an executive order creating a commission to examine racial inequality in Virginia law. Many of these laws have been in place since the Jim Crow-era.

Del. Aird says the coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the inequities minority communities face like housing, jobs and accessibility.

“The people who have authority just ignore that crowd. They’re not anxious to make that happen. They don’t put forth the effort to make things happen the way they should. I think, around here we do that," commented Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea.

As of the close of the Virginia General Assembly’s special session, Del. Aird’s resolution has not been taken up. However, the work to not simply reverse racist systems in place but to completely overhaul what hasn’t worked continues.

“We have Black people coming in for counseling. Those barriers that you once heard – nonexistent. We have close to a thousand clients we have seen in over a year that come and look like me," said Dr. Evans.

The effects of racism are real. If you need help on how to manage, click here.

“Policymakers, like what we’re doing right now in special session, can do so much to try and change the environment here in the Commonwealth," admitted Del. Aird.

By his own admission, Gov. Northam has vowed to work with Del. Aird on moving this resolution forward. He plans to meet with a task force to study how more can be done to combat the effects of racism.

“We’ve got our work to do now! We’ve got a ways to go," admitted Mayor Lea. "But I think that’s what elected officials, especially in my office, can do. You can oversee this and create opportunities where change can happen.”

All of these leaders say they recognize adjusting laws and practices that promote racism isn’t enough. Del. Aird says it’s important to also treat the wounds racism has left on generations.


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