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Ending racism and health disparities is nonnegotiable

Ernest Grant, Ph.D., R.NErnest Grant, Ph.D., R.N., is president of the American Nurses Association.

by Ernest J. Grant, PhD, RN, FAAN • June 9, 2020
photo courtesy of the American Nurses Association

The unjust death of George Floyd last month has sparked peaceful protests and heated uprisings across the country. To see a police officer on camera taking the life of someone he was sworn to serve and protect was heartbreaking and senseless. As a black man who has experienced racism and discrimination, it’s deeply disturbing to see such a blatant disregard for human life.

While we are still combating the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest public health crisis on everyone’s mind is the racism being expressed through police brutality — something that we’ve struggled with as a nation for decades — from Rodney King to Philando Castile — and the list goes on.

Nurses, the most trusted professionals in the country, are on the front lines of every major public health crisis, and it’s proven that trust and positive relationships lead to dramatically improved health outcomes. Nurses, everyone in healthcare — all of us — must take a stand against racism, health disparities and social injustices that divide our nation.

In my latest statement on racism against black communities, I mention that the Code of Ethics for Nurses obligates nurses to be allies and to advocate and speak up against racism, discrimination and social injustice. It’s the nonnegotiable, ethical duty of a nurse. Stories of nurses taking to the streets with medical supplies after their extensive hospital shifts to treat protesters hit with rubber bullets or sprayed with tear gas reveal how nurses are trained to respond. Nurses were also providing information on social media on how protesters could seek free healthcare for their injuries.

By the nature of our profession, we must recognize human dignity in all its forms — regardless of race, culture, creed, ethnicity, or any aspect of identity. The Code of Ethics for Nurses beckons us to protect human rights and reduce health disparities. The recent images of nurses also recall the story of Ieshia Evans, a nurse who protested the 2016 killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and was subsequently arrested for peacefully protesting. She wrote an op-ed about her ethical obligation to take a stand due to the systemic racism she’s experienced throughout her life.

America’s long-standing history of racism, discrimination, and police brutality impacts both the mental and physical health of the black community. COVID-19 has exacerbated this crisis and the disproportionate impact in black communities is disturbing. According to some early reports, African Americans in Chicago accounted for more than half of all positive COVID-19 test results and 72% of recorded virus-related deaths, despite constituting only 32% of the city’s population. Similar data continue to be reported in additional communities across the nation.

We must realize the reason these populations are suffering the most is attributable to social determinants of health and preexisting health conditions that are rooted in their communities. We must recognize socio-economic challenges — discrimination, poverty, lack of access to quality healthcare and education, good jobs, hazardous environments — and address them. We cannot afford to overlook anyone.

When we are silent, we are complicit. This silence allows unchecked behavior of rogue police officers, racism, and brutality to continue to be a threat to our society. Nurses and all healthcare professionals must educate themselves and then use their voices and influence to educate others about the systemic injustices that have sparked the protests and riots taking place all over the world. We can only achieve true justice when we listen to each other and engage in meaningful, honest dialogue. It’s also time for decisionmakers, including lawmakers and public health stakeholders, to come together with the same sense of urgency and courage to act for real change.

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