Racism is a public health emergency

This story was published in the Fall 2020 issue of The Washington Nurse magazine.

This story appears in Ongoing work on racial justice.

A letter to our nurses #

We as a country are facing a double crisis. We are fighting to slow the spread of the coron­avirus and to get nurses and other health care workers what we need to safely care for our patients. We are also facing the crisis of systemic racism manifested in the killing of George Floyd and many other black and brown people at the hands of the police. Racism is a public health emergency as much as the coron­avirus pandemic is, but it can’t be solved by devel­oping a vaccine, insti­tuting widespread testing or social distancing.

This is why as nurses, as a profes­sional associ­a­tion and as a labor union, WSNA is supporting the efforts led by black organi­za­tions to protest systemic racism and bring justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Manuel Ellis and too many other black people who have died at the hands of law enforce­ment officers.

These crises are inter­twined. The hand of racism rests heavily on the health care system and public health. We know that people of color face systemic barriers to accessing health care and being listened to or heard. We also know that COVID-19 is having a dispro­por­tionate impact on people of color. Black Ameri­cans are more likely to develop COVID-19 and have a higher rate of hospi­tal­iza­tion, mechan­ical venti­la­tion and death. Add to that the dispro­por­tionate economic impact on black and brown commu­ni­ties, including greater rates of job losses, and the public health crises of the coron­avirus and racism are inseparable.

Regis­tered nurses have a long history of working with our partners in law enforce­ment to address mental illness and violence in our commu­nity and workplaces. We recog­nize that many of us have family, spouses and friends that work in law enforce­ment who share our deep concern and outrage at racist acts. Across the country, we have seen officers take a knee” in solidarity with protestors. 

The issues we are speaking out against are systemic. We are calling on our law enforce­ment colleagues to recog­nize racism as a major issue, self-reflect on the impact of racism and their relation­ships with the commu­nity, accept account­ability and commit to true reform to address racism. 

Racism has a 400 year history in America that has taken black lives for hundreds of years. Nurses are called on to advocate for their patients and their commu­ni­ties. That is why we cannot remain silent. That is why the Washington State Nurses Associ­a­tion stands in solidarity with all those who are calling for an end to systemic racism, racial violence and police brutality.

WSNA supports the princi­ples outlined in the open letter advocating for an anti-racist public health response to demon­stra­tions against systemic injus­tice occur­ring during the COVID-19 pandemic” spear­headed by Univer­sity of Washington infec­tious disease experts and signed by 1,288 public health profes­sionals, infec­tious diseases profes­sionals, and commu­nity stakeholders. 

As the letter states, To the extent possible, we support the appli­ca­tion of these public health best practices during demon­stra­tions that call atten­tion to the perva­sive lethal force of white supremacy. However, as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gather­ings as risky for COVID-19 trans­mis­sion. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threat­ened health specif­i­cally of Black people in the United States. We can show that support by facil­i­tating safest protesting practices without detracting from demon­stra­tors’ ability to gather and demand change.”

We also recog­nize that the choice to partic­i­pate in any in-person demon­stra­tion is individual and that many, especially those at high risk for COVID-19, won’t be comfort­able partic­i­pating in an in-person protest. Nurses have never been known to stand by and do nothing when our patients are hurting. Now is no different. Nurses are also known for critical thinking and being thoughtful educa­tors. Now is no different. We encourage you to make the right decision for yourself and keep your eyes open for other oppor­tu­ni­ties to support systemic changes that will improve the health and safety of our commu­ni­ties in the coming weeks and months.

Lynnette Vehrs, MN, RN, WSNA President

Julia Barcott, RN, Chair of the WSNA Cabinet on Economic & General Welfare

Ongoing work on racial justice