‘To be safe means to be healthy’ - Expert on racial health disparities

‘To be safe means to be healthy’ - Expert on racial health disparities
In the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19, it is time to rethink notions of public safety and public health. In fact, it's time to see that ‘being safe is an integral dimension to be healthy,’ said Prof. Hedwig Lee, a health disparities expert, in an exclusive interview for MNT.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests raised concerns, at that time, that they would cause COVID-19 cases to spike. Some people used these concerns to discredit the protests and the public health specialists that supported them. 

However, the protests didn't raise COVID-19 rates and called the idea of public health into question. It really is becoming increasingly apparent that people can no longer ignore social determinants of health, such as poverty or racial discrimination. Police brutality is a public health issue, and so is racism. 

Furthermore, in a few communities, a police occurrence makes the members of those communities feel anything but safe. This begs the question - what does public safety mean? What's the relationship between public safety and public health?

For answers, we turned to Hedwig Lee, a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL). Prof. Lee’s research interests include health disparities, race, and policing and social control. She actually is also the associate director of the guts for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Equity at WUSTL.

We started by inquiring about public safety and public health as though they were two separate notions, but Prof. Lee challenged us to “flip the script.” It's time to understand that “Being safe is an integral dimension to be healthy,” she said. 

Also, in the context of “over-policing” and how it affects Black communities, specifically, it is worth considering that ‘safety’ may mean different things for different people, and this may rely upon where people live.

We talked to Prof. Lee about the legacy of racial violence in the usa, policing, COVID-19, wealth inequality, and how most of these aspects are interconnected into a broader picture of health. We have lightly edited the interview for clarity.

MNT: In the context of the BLM protests and COVID-19, it seems such as a good time to rethink the concept of public health insurance and what it means for different communities. Is there a tension between public safety and public health? Can the former be detrimental to the latter?

Prof. Lee: I’ve been thinking a lot about your questions, and I believe, via my perspective as someone who studies the social determinants of health, it’s hard for me sometimes to disentangle public safety from public health. 

[C]OVID has changed the entire world, and in the U.S., I believe it really helped to amplify what racial inequalities actually mean. I believe among the reasons it did that's because it demonstrates all health outcomes are related. It demonstrates there’s no such thing as a public health policy or a criminal justice policy or an education policy, but that economical policy impacts health outcomes, that education policy impacts health outcomes, etc. 

And so, whenever we make an effort to create divisions or make an effort to think about public health insurance and public safety in a zero-sum game, I think we forget or lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that of the things are connected. 

So, issues of structural racism impact policing just in the same way that they impact people’s disproportionate risk to health hazards. 

And so, if we used that framework, we'd be asking different sorts of questions. I think the questions you’re asking remain really important and we must consider them. But, if we’re thinking more upstream, [we see that] if we were doing an improved job at, for instance, making certain neighborhoods weren’t segregated, [if] we were making certain we didn’t have policies that led to racial residential segregation, we’d have less police violence and we’d have fewer persons exposed to COVID. 

Those are the types of things [that we ought to be looking at,] and that’s how I think about any of it - big picture.

MNT: Along the same lines, I was wondering if there are similar factors at play in the BLM protests. Any kind of social determinants of health that people have to look at there before we think [in rather simplistic terms] nearly the risk of spreading the virus? What are a number of the underlying factors that created the protests to begin with?

And [people are protesting] because at some level, we recognize that if we actually want to improve outcomes for individuals - and which includes protecting people from coming to threat of COVID, ensuring persons have adequate healthcare if they feel sick, making certain people have sufficient job security not to need to come to work if they’re sick, making certain they are in homes that are safe and [that] allow for the capability to self-quarantine, etc. - we must address larger-scale policies. I believe protesting is trying to address these larger-scale issues.

And, the conversations will turn to more proximate issues, like okay, can persons protest safely? Is this likely to increase COVID-19 risk, are we likely to create new hotspots? But, I believe for almost all of the people protesting, they believe that they are advocating for larger-scale conditions that won’t just impact COVID risk now and racial disparities but will prevent something similar to COVID from happening again later on.

COVID is just among the many examples that we can turn to [in order] to comprehend racial disparities in the U.S. Even though COVID is monumental and exceptional in so many ways, we, as African Americans, have a higher mortality risk and so are at higher risk for other varieties of chronic diseases - the list continues. COVID is what we’re thinking about right now, but another thing might replace COVID.

Once COVID is fully gone, we will have racial disparities in other health insurance and social outcomes, and protesting is approximately doing the work in order that we can fix today and tomorrow. So I think it’s a longer-term investment. 

So, I think if you see it that way, you realize that individuals are considering saving lives today and tomorrow, and it might make you type of reconsider the expenses and advantages of protesting right now, given the goals of the protests.
Source: www.medicalnewstoday.com
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