You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Opinion: Treat anti-Black racism as a public health emergency

Edmonton Journal logo Edmonton Journal 2021-02-25 Bukola Salami , Kannin Osei-Tutu , Delores Mullings
a man and a woman taking a selfie: Dr. Kannin Osei-Tutu (left) and a patient. File photo. © Provided by Edmonton Journal Dr. Kannin Osei-Tutu (left) and a patient. File photo.

In recent years, the Public Health Agency of Canada recognized racism as a determinant of health; the Toronto Board of Health and the Canadian Nurses Association also identified anti-Black racism as a public health emergency.

Professional organizations such as Black Physicians of Canada, Alberta Black Therapist Network, Alberta Association of Black Social Workers, and Black Physicians’ Association of Alberta have formed, in large part, to dismantle anti-Black racism in the health-care sector. However, many policy-makers and service providers do not recognize the need to directly address anti-Black racism.

According to the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, anti-Black racism includes “policies and practices rooted in Canadian institutions such as education, health care, and justice that mirror and reinforce beliefs, attitudes, prejudice, stereotyping and/or discrimination towards people of African descent.”  It results in systems of inequities in the distribution of resources, power, and opportunities that discriminate against Black people.

Recognition of anti-Black racism as a public health emergency follows from a report by the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent that indicated “the cumulative impact of anti-Black racism and discrimination faced by African-Canadians in the enjoyment of their rights to education, health, housing and employment, among other economic, social and cultural rights, has had serious consequences for their overall well-being.”

Recent evidence confirms the deleterious impact of anti-Black racism and structural inequities on health outcomes of Black people. Emerging data from Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa suggest neighbourhoods that are predominantly Black have a higher prevalence of COVID-19 infection. This suggests the social inequities resulting from being Black have a stronger influence on COVID-19-related health outcomes than any other social determinant of health, including poverty, refugee status, or racialization. Data collected by the Health and Immigration Practices Research Program of the Faculty of Nursing, University of Alberta, shed further light on the vital impact of anti-Black racism on health outcomes.

To eradicate anti-Black racism, structural inequities that Black people experience in areas of education and employment must be addressed. There is a wide range of educational experience among Black populations; for example, Black women from Nigeria and Cameroon have one of the highest levels of education in Canada. Yet, the systemic anti-Black racism in employment means Black populations experience a high rate of poverty, and Black children may subsequently have lower educational attainment than their parents, indicating an intergenerational link to poverty. Poverty has a strong impact on health outcomes, which is further fuelled by anti-Black racism and influences health outcomes (e.g., heart disease, mental health, et cetera.).

Improving population health outcomes in Canada requires a focus on addressing anti-Black racism and its associated structural inequities. This includes taking actions such as embedding anti-Black racism principles and practices in health-care professional standards of practice and in all policies both within and outside the health-care system.

One way to achieve this is through recognition of racism as a social determinant of health and creating accountability metrics that promote anti-racism. A starting point is the collection of race-based data in a racially and culturally sensitive way that is responsive to the health needs of Black communities in Canada.

Federal, provincial, and local governments must also ensure all funded programs address the intersection of racism with other identities. Our research and findings, such as those the Women’s Health in Women’s Hands Community Health Centre in Toronto, show Black populations have improved health outcomes when Black people provide services to them. However, only 2.3 per cent of physicians are Black vs. 3.5 per cent of the overall Canadian population. Increasing the diversity of health professionals from senior leadership to service-provider levels will help to address the health inequities Black people experience.

As COVID-19 shows, health inequities are devastating to Black Canadians. There is a need to address institutional anti-Black racism as a public health emergency across all sectors, including government, labour, health care, and education. Improvements to this end are paramount to achieve equitable health outcomes among Black populations in Canada and move to a truly anti-racist future in health care and beyond.

Bukola Salami is associate professor, Faculty of Nursing, University of Alberta.

Kannin Osei-Tutu is clinical lecturer, Faculty of Medicine, University of Calgary and founder of Black Physicians Association of Alberta.

Delores Mullings is associate professor and associate dean of Undergraduate Programs, School of Social Work, Memorial University.


More from Edmonton Journal

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon