Black people are at the center of two public health crises in the US: Covid-19 and police brutality

Hands up, don’t shoot.
Hands up, don’t shoot.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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On May 25, America witnessed yet another display of police brutality toward Black people. A video, about nine minutes long, showed Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man—a father and grandfather who worked as a truck driver and security guard. Three other officers stood by.

As the video circulated online and on news media, people around the country took to the streets to protest and demand justice for Floyd as well as other Black lives lost to police brutality and racist violence. Meanwhile, Black people have also been disproportionately disciplined in the enforcement of coronavirus social distancing measures.

And so, in the past few days, a country held hostage by Covid-19 for over two months has turned its attention to a much older public health crisis: Police brutality, and the conditions that enable it to thrive.

Protests against the death of George Floyd, attended by people of all races but with a large Black representation, have often been met with further displays of police violence. Protesters, and in some instances even journalists and medics, have been attacked with rubber bullets, pepper spray, and batons. This has happened to peaceful protesters as well as those accused of burning and looting. In at least one case—in Brooklyn, New York—police cars drove into a crowd of protesters.

The president celebrated the Secret Service’s eagerness to unleash violence on protesters outside the White House, and threatened to have the national guard open fire in case of looting.

It is a public health issue. “Excessive police force is a communal violence that significantly drives unnecessary and costly injury, and premature morbidity and death,” the American Medical Association (AMA) wrote in a statement on May 29, describing police brutality as both prevalent and pervasive, and directly linked to the legacy of racism in the US.

Similarly, research by the American Public Health Association (APHA) published in 2018 showed that excess use of force by the police—which is overwhelmingly directed towards Black people and other disadvantaged communities (other minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ people)—results not just in death, but has other long-term public health consequences, too.

To give a sense of the magnitude of the crisis, the APHA reported that in 2016 alone (the latest year for which the organization could get reliable data, in itself a telling sign of the lack of priority accorded to the issue) at least 1,019 people were killed due to police intervention, and 76,440 were injured. This resulted in nearly 55,000 years of life lost, and had a large price tag, too: Police brutality costs $1.8 billion per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s most recently available data (2010).

That this cost is overwhelmingly sustained by Black communities is by design, as the APHA notes: US policing was created as a form of control of communities considered marginal, particularly on racial grounds, and continues to operate accordingly.

But while the country’s main preoccupation may have shifted from coronavirus to police brutality, what hasn’t changed is who is paying the biggest price for those crises. In both cases, it’s Black communities. African Americans in particular are nearly three times more likely to be hospitalized than non-Hispanic whites for severe complications from coronavirus, because they tend to suffer more from the chronic preexisting conditions—diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease—associated with more serious Covid-19 cases. These are conditions worsened by racial discrimination, as they are directly linked with worse socioeconomic conditions.

Black communities, too, are disproportionally represented in essential jobs, which are held by over a third of the Black employed population, and Black people are 50% more likely to work in healthcare than white people. Meanwhile, as several public health and racial equity advocates have noted, the rush to reopen nonessential businesses, further threatens African American communities, who continue to experience high infection and death rates even as overall infection numbers are going down.

These two crises for the Black community—police brutality and coronavirus—aren’t independent of each other. In fact, in both cases the extent of the death toll stems from systematic discrimination, and in both cases, the solution requires a deep rethinking of the overall system. As the APHA found, strengthening community health and social service structures has a direct effect on improving life expectancy and reducing incidence of chronic disease, therefore protecting the population in the face of epidemics such as Covid-19.

Community-based policing could reduce violently racist actions by officers, which is, even in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century, the bigger crisis at hand. It is endemic and, unlike coronavirus, there is no timeline for effective treatment—let alone a vaccine.