Doctors pen letter in support of anti-Black racism protests during pandemic

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Thousands of doctors and health professionals have written an open letter in support of anti-Black racism protests during the novel coronavirus pandemic, stating that “white supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19.”

The letter, signed by 1,288 public health and infectious diseases experts as well as community stakeholders, says that Black people suffer from “dramatic health disparities” in life expectancy and chronic medical conditions, which stem from long-standing systems of oppression and bias in the health-care system.

Black communities are also subjected to “decreased access to medical care and healthy food, unsafe working conditions, mass incarceration, exposure to pollution and noise and the toxic effects of stress,” the health-care professionals wrote.

READ MORE: Black neighbourhoods in Toronto are hit hardest by COVID-19 — and it’s ‘anchored in racism’

The signatories, based both in the U.S. and Canada, wrote that health best practices, including physical distancing, handwashing and wearing a mask, are encouraged during protests, but the COVID-19 pandemic should not be used to prevent people from gathering.

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In recent weeks, protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality have erupted across North America — and the world — in response to the deaths of Black Americans George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.

“We support them (protests) as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States,” the letter says.

“We can show that support by facilitating safest protesting practices without detracting from demonstrators’ ability to gather and demand change.”

The letter also demands that law enforcement respect COVID-19 prevention measures by wearing masks, maintaining distance from protesters and avoiding arresting protestors and holding them in confined spaces.

1:09 Coronavirus outbreak: WHO’s Dr. Tedros encourages people globally to protest safely

Coronavirus outbreak: WHO’s Dr. Tedros encourages people globally to protest safely

The health workers also say they oppose the use of any tear gas, smoke or other respiratory irritants, which can increase the risk for COVID-19 by inducing coughing and making people more susceptible to infection.

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Importantly, the authors write that their support of protests against racism should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings. The health-care professionals said they do not support those protesting against coronavirus lockdown measures.

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“In addressing demonstrations against white supremacy, our first statement must be one of unwavering support for those who would dismantle, uproot or reform racist institutions,” the letter states.

Alexandra Blair, an epidemiologist and postdoctoral fellow and the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, is one of the Canadians who signed the open letter.

READ MORE: 24 Black medical students accepted to U of T Medicine — the most in Canadian history

Blair told Global News she did so because she believes it is essential to speak out against anti-Black racism at all times, especially during the pandemic.

“Systemic racism is a co-occurring health-impacting phenomenon in Canada that deserves rightful attention,” Blair said.

“And tackling anti-Black racism will be needed to address the underlying conditions that place Black and racialized communities at higher risk of COVID-19 and its complications.”

Blair said that Canadians should consider what epidemiologists have known for years: “Pandemics rarely occur in a vacuum, and we must adapt our interventions accordingly.”

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Blair points to research that shows how systemic racism negatively impacts health and people’s livelihoods, especially as it pertains to Black and Indigenous communities. Systemic racism helps shape policies and systems, which has “resulted in racialized communities’ disproportionate exposure to health-threatening experiences and conditions,” Blair said.

2:57 Thousands rally against racism in Victoria, B.C.

Thousands rally against racism in Victoria, B.C.

Such health inequities can be seen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Toronto, data shows Black neighbourhoods have been hit hardest by COVID-19, something experts say is “anchored in racism.”

The findings for Toronto mirror similar findings for neighbourhoods in Montreal. Data published by the City of Montreal showed that immigrants, refugees and lower-income people live in the hardest-hit regions.

And these demographic characteristics are not limited to Canada. New York, one of the most severely impacted cities globally by COVID-19, has higher death rates in poorer neighbourhoods. Black and Hispanic people living in New York City are also twice as likely to die from the virus, compared to white people, according to data from the city.

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READ MORE: Why some advocates want to defund Canadian police

New data this month from the APM Research Lab, a Minnesota-based research and analysis firm, found that Black Americans are dying of COVID-19 at a rate that’s three times higher than white people. Their analysis found that one in 2,000 Black people in the U.S. has died from the virus so far.

“It’s not due to a genetic difference between Blacks and whites,” Dr. Onyenyechukwu Nnorom, a public health physician and assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, previously told Global News.

“It’s due to the inequities that Black and racialized people experience, such that there’s an extra stress from everyday racism that predisposes us to chronic conditions.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.

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For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

— With files from Olivia Bowden and Patrick Cain 

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© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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