Reflecting on Racism, Police Brutality, and COVID-19

Alt: Fists raised in the air beneath a Black Lives Matter sign.

The primary authors of this post are white. We know that we can’t fully understand the Black experience — and that we may get some things wrong. If we mess up, we want to hear that feedback.

This week, as protests against racism and police brutality fill our newsfeeds alongside continuing coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re taking time to reflect on the interconnectedness of these public health crises.

Many major health organizations — like the American Medical Association and American Public Health Association — have released statements in recent days affirming that racism and police brutality are public health crises at least as urgent and life-threatening as coronavirus. And as the drastic racial disparities in COVID-19 death rates show, when a Black person dies of COVID-19, they have also and equally been killed by systemic racism as a determinant of health — a cause of death that speaks to structural problems far beyond violence.

So as health communicators, we recognize that prioritizing the threat of the pandemic over systemic threats to Black lives is a false choice. And we have a responsibility to avoid promoting this false choice in our messages. For example, when we talk about the potential of protests to spread coronavirus, we need to avoid blaming protesters for this potential harm — or implying that the risk of spreading coronavirus outweighs the disproportionate risk of disease, violence, and death Black people face every day in this country.

We also need to clearly condemn police violence and escalation at protests. And when we talk about the risk of coronavirus spreading, we should start by calling out militarized police tactics that increase that risk, like forcing protesters into crowded spaces or using tear gas.

Here at We ❤ Health Literacy Headquarters, we’ll keep doing our own research, educating ourselves, and listening to you, our readers. We’re here for comments and questions about how health communicators can better address police brutality, racism, and white supremacy in the time of COVID-19. And while we don’t expect our Black readers to take on the labor of educating us, we want to use our platform to share resources created by Black people and to amplify Black voices.

Tweet us @CommunicateHlth or email:

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