U.S. Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both Maryland Democrats, are cosponsoring a resolution that was introduced in the Senate last week to declare racism a national public health emergency.
The legislation acknowledges the role that race plays in health disparities as the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately affects communities of color, according to a Wednesday statement from the senators.
“Racial health disparities were a pervasive problem before COVID-19 hit and they have been exacerbated by the current crisis,” Van Hollen said.
Black residents make up about 30% of Maryland’s population but 36.7% of the 73,710 coronavirus cases that have race and ethnicity demographics available, according to an analysis of data from the state’s health department.
About 10% of Marylanders are Hispanic, but they account for 29.3% of positive COVID-19 tests.
In Montgomery County, African Americans comprise 20% of the population but almost a quarter of coronavirus-related deaths.
Unequal health impacts on communities of color stem from barriers to health care access, housing, jobs and wages, among other factors, according to the senators’ statement.
“Long-standing systemic racism in health care and socioeconomic disparities have left Black and Latino communities more vulnerable to COVID-19 and prevented access to life-saving care and treatment,” Cardin said.
Cardin and Van Hollen also recently introduced the COVID-19 Health Disparities Action Act, which aims to mandate testing, contract tracing and outreach efforts in minority communities that are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic.
The Senate bill declaring racism a public health emergency — submitted by Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California — would require the United States to establish “a nationwide strategy to address health disparities and inequity across all sectors of society.”
It would also formally support similar legislation drafted and adopted by localities across the country, like the one the Montgomery County Council unanimously passed last month.
Spearheaded by Councilmember Will Jawando, the resolution commits the council to “becoming an equity and justice-oriented organization.” The body will continue advocating for local and national health policies that protect communities of color, according to the legislation.
It’s also calling on Gov. Larry Hogan and Maryland General Assembly leadership to declare racism a public health crisis statewide.
“Systemic racism is as American as apple pie,” Jawando said at the June 16 council meeting. “If we are going to be held up and true to our ideals that we were founded on, we have to take these steps.”