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The Life-Threatening Connections Between Race and Physical Health

Our existing healthcare systems are failing BIPOC communities. Their physical well-being is disproportionately put at increased risk every day. To create true health equity, we need to own up to the ways racism affects all areas of health.

A doctor's stethoscope sitting on a table

This is the latest article in our series on Anti-Racism and Inclusion. Read our previous posts on The Importance of Health Equity, Racism and Mental Health, and watch the video of our interactive webinar on Disparities in Healthcare.

Right now, we’re having some long-overdue conversations about the long-term effects of racism. 

Across the globe and for varied reasons, BIPOC people suffer and lose their lives because of a lack of care at the hands of healthcare systems anchored in racist systems. 

We need to fix that.  

Racial health inequities have existed for as long as racism itself. This results in BIPOC people who are harmed by barriers to affordable, effective healthcare. 

At League, we believe that access to healthcare is a human right for all. BIPOC communities are being denied that right.

This is fundamentally inexcusable — and we’re not talking about it enough to make a difference. 

As we continue to discuss health equity and the vital need for equal access to healthcare, we have to start by facing the facts. Multiple studies show just how deeply racist systems and attitudes are embedded into healthcare.

We can’t fix a problem unless we see it for what it is and acknowledge its severity. Our healthcare systems need to address how to equally serve the BIPOC communities, and Black communities specifically, that have been ignored and underserved for so long. 

COVID-19 has proven how racial health inequities are disastrous for Black communities

Around the world, the life-threatening reality of racial health inequities has become more clear during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. 

That means that Black people in the US test positive for COVID-19 at more than twice the rate of their per capita population and die from the virus at close to triple.  

  • In Canada, lack of racial demographic data on the impact of COVID-19 highlights how bias and oversight can make it more difficult to accurately assess the impacts of racism on physical health. As recently as this May, public health advocates were highlighting the need to collect more race-based data to better understand how COVID-19 is impacting Black Canadians. 

Racism and Mental Health

person is seated next to a city street and is looking at their hands with a look of concern on their face.

The long-lasting connections between race, nutrition and physical health

The pandemic has taken the race-based health inequities that already existed and made them even worse. But it’s equally important to look at data showing the many instances of health inequity from before COVID-19 — and that without action will exist long after — so that we can do the necessary work to stop them. 

1. Nutrition and food access

Access to affordable, nutritious food is affected by racism. Recent studies show that race is a stronger determinant than poverty in lack of food availability. In neighborhoods where racial segregation intersects with poverty, we see fewer numbers of independent and chain supermarkets selling fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat milk, high-fiber foods and other healthier options. 

Compounding the problem, areas with predominantly BIPOC populations have increased exposure to fast food and fewer health food retailers. 

The same study showed that majority Black neighborhoods — regardless of economic status — were still more likely to have less access to healthier foods than comparable white or Latinx communities. 

So while non-Black areas saw an increase in healthier food options along with income, Black communities had both increased access to fast food, and lowered access to nutritious options, regardless of their income status.

Nutrition is integral not only to maintaining strong health, but also in preventing disease. For example, diet is a particularly strong determining factor for chronic diabetes, one of the most rapidly increasing diseases in the US. While rising rates of diabetes is a problem for all Americans, BIPOC communities have been hit the hardest: They’re twice as likely as white people to become diabetic, have a higher rate of diabetes-related deaths, and suffer disproportionate rates of complications like kidney damage and amputations. 

2. Segregated neighborhoods and environmental factors

Our quality of physical health is directly linked to our environments. Residents in neighborhoods with less access to public amenities and green spaces face multiple added exposures to harmful physical and social factors like increased pollution. 

Just like with food access, a person’s race, more than their economic status, is the #1 indicator of whether they will live exposed to pollution

As of 2015 in the US, 13% of Black people lived in high-poverty neighborhoods compared to only 2.2% of white people. The legacy of racial residential segregation means that  BIPOC people with low income are routinely forced to live near areas of manufacturing and with increased exposure to harmful toxins and wastes in their air, land and water.

In many cases, Black communities experience negative health effects more similar to lower income countries than the ones they actually live in. Maternal mortality is one example. In the US, the maternal death rate for the Black community is 40 per 100,000 live births, rates similar to those in lower-income countries like Brazil, Mexico and Malaysia. 

White people have a maternal death rate of almost a quarter of that, at 12.4 per 100,000 live births, which is in-line with more affluent nations like New Zealand, France and Japan. 

Our Black Lives Matter Member Resource Guide has links to support and services you can access right now, including culturally appropriate mental health services, how to get care from Black doctors, and how to donate directly to charities we’ve partnered with that are working to increase health equity for the Black community. 

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