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Two Public Health Crises, One Root Cause

June 17, 2020
by Mayur M. Desai

We are living through an unprecedented time of two public health crises – COVID-19 and police brutality – one caused by a new coronavirus and the other by racism that has persisted for centuries. Both are disproportionately killing people of color. At the heart of the inequities and injustice laid bare by the two public health crises are the legacy of white supremacy and structural racism, as well as their pernicious effects on every aspect of our social, political, economic, healthcare, and education systems. This is an uncomfortable truth that at long last must be acknowledged and addressed.

As public health professionals, we know this is our lane and are called to action. We need to hear and learn from all voices and lived experiences if we are to be successful both in extending the benefits of a long and healthy life expectancy to all and in equitably preventing and controlling public health emergencies. A diverse and inclusive public health workforce is needed to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. At the Yale School of Public Health, we must redouble our efforts to diversify our student body, faculty and staff. These have been long-standing, high-priority goals for the school. And while we have made progress, we must continue to try new ways of doing better and hold ourselves accountable.

We must also modernize our curriculum – in terms of both coursework and applied practice experiences – to train anti-racist public health professionals. It is no longer sufficient to just focus on developing technical skills in the core public health disciplines of biostatistics, environmental health, epidemiology, health policy and management, and social and behavioral sciences. It is no longer sufficient to simply document inequities in health outcomes among those with marginalized identities and from underserved communities. We must move toward an academic program that is more action and solution oriented.

At YSPH, we began to do this prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now in its third year, all entering MPH students are required to take a core course titled “Social Justice and Health Equity,” which moves beyond cataloging social determinants of health to addressing these issues head on. In addition, set to launch this fall are two new concentrations focused on U.S. Health Justice and Climate Change and Health. Both were co-created over the past year or two by committees that included faculty and students. Their timing could not be more prescient. Among the requirements for the U.S. Health Justice Concentration, students will take a new course on advocacy and activism, and then get hands-on experience by doing their summer internship or practicum with a local community partner organization whose work is focused on advancing health equity and social justice. The Climate Change and Health Concentration, which has environmental health and racial justice at its core, also has a strong practical component through its interdisciplinary practicum in climate justice, climate policy, law, and public health.

In the midst of COVID-19 and the murder of Mr. George Floyd (and of countless other Black and Brown people before him) at the hands of police, public health has never been more consequential. YSPH is committed to breaking down the policies, procedures, and structures of institutionalized racism. Through our innovative teaching, community-engaged research, and equitable partnerships and service, we continually strive to advance health equity and justice for all.

Mayur M. Desai, M.P.H. ’94, Ph.D. ’97, is an associate professor and Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Yale School of Public Health.

This is part of a series of essays by Yale School of Public Health faculty, alumni and students on the issues of race and racism in the United States following the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests against police brutality throughout the United States. We remember, too, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and countless Americans who came before.

See other essays in this series and related material in the Public Health Crisis of Racism section on the YSPH website at https://publichealth.yale.edu/blm/

Submitted by Sayuri Gavaskar on June 17, 2020