‘To gain a deeper understanding of how we can recover and rebuild, the Health Department recently launched a new series. The vision is to spark conversation by bringing together communities across the city, thought leaders, and partners in the fields of science, medicine, public health, racial justice, and social justice.’

Adi Talwar

A person getting vaccinated at the South Bronx Educational Campus Vaccine Hubs located on St Ann’s Avenue.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, life expectancy has dropped by 2.7 years for Black Americans and 1.9 years for Latinx Americans nationally—the most dramatic change in decades. We have seen years of health gains erased in thousands and thousands of painful moments. The loss of life was predictable to those who understand our country’s original sins, but it was also unfair, avoidable, and unjust. These racial inequalities persist today with COVID-19 infection, mortality, and vaccination. While we are making gains in New York City, still 26 percent of Black adults and 32 percent of Latinx adults have received the vaccine compared to 45 percent of white adults.

We know we must do better, and we cannot afford to wait any longer. We know that engaging trusted community messengers, health providers and healers is central to our vaccine equity strategy. We have a powerful opportunity to make transformative change.

To gain a deeper understanding of how we can recover and rebuild, the Health Department recently launched a new series entitled “Reimagining Public Health for NYC.” The vision is to spark conversation by bringing together communities across the city, thought leaders, and partners in the fields of science, medicine, public health, racial justice, and social justice.

Our first session focused on how the COVID-19 vaccine can lead to a just recovery.

The questions were thoughtful and revealing: Should I be afraid that the vaccine will make me sick? How will the Health Department do better to address cultural diversity in New York City? What can individuals do to promote vaccine equity? If there was one thing about public health to reimagine, what would it be?

Everyone who participated reinforced the need to be transparent and truthful about the COVID-19 vaccines and not shame people for having mistrust of government and medicine. We talked about empowering and listening to our youth; how environmental racism contributes to health inequities; and ways to better engage New Yorkers in their communities at the places they spend the most time.

Health equity and racial justice work is generational. We hope the series will influence the work and strategies that lie ahead for the Health Department as the city takes actionable steps to address racism and trauma across our city.

It is also part of a diverse set of tactics the city is using to advance health equity. Building on the Taskforce on Racial Inclusion and Equity and new Racial Justice Charter Commission, the Health Department created an equity plan for our COVID-19 response and vaccine distribution to minimize the impact of disinvestment in communities of color. Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed a series of policies and investments focused on public health and social justice, including a network of community health workers to strengthen our public health infrastructure.

And last June, just weeks after the murder of George Floyd, the Health Department declared racism as a public health crisis. To date, over 200 locales across the country have made declarations and the trend has continued to expand over time.

These declarations are critical recognitions of the health impact of structural racism. They demonstrate that public health leaders across the country are ready to name racism and take action to dismantle white supremacy.

However, public health, at its root, is a commitment to community organizing. All New Yorkers deserve to be a part of reimagining public health in our city and to have their voices heard.

Our next session is on Tuesday, April 27 and is entitled “Collective Recovery and Wellness During COVID-19.” It will start with a poem by youth poet Alondra Uribe, and panelists include: political strategist and activist Joy Williams; social psychiatrist Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove; Human Rights Campaign ACTIVITE fellow Dorcas Adeoja; artist Garbiel Torres; and the co-director for the Center for NuLeadership on Human Justice and Healing Kyung-ji Kate Rhee.

We invite everyone to join and ask questions. 

As famed writer Arundhati Roy proclaimed, “the pandemic is a portal.” On the horizon, at the end of this portal, the conditions for all beings and our earth to thrive can be created. And the public health community has a critical role to play.

Dr. Michelle Morse is the New York City Health Department’s chief medical officer and deputy commissioner for the Center for Health Equity and Community Wellness. Dr. Torian Easterling is the NYC Health Department’s first deputy commissioner and chief health equity officer.

One thought on “Opinion: Reimagining Public Health for NYC Starts With Community Conversations

  1. How can Torian Easterling’s patients trust his clinical judgment and his ability to perform his duties as a doctor when he lives in a fantasy land where literally everything is racist and black people must be infantilized?

    Do you really need “justice initiatives” to convince black patients to get vaccinated? Do you think black patients are incapable of reading about the vaccines and understanding data from the clinical trials like every other person, regardless of race or ethnicity?

    Do you really think you’re fighting white supremacy? In New York City of all places?

    Do you think you’re accomplishing anything by legitimizing distrust of the medical community?

    You are doing irreparable harm and setting race relations back decades by insisting literally every aspect of life is about oppressors and the oppressed. You are engaging in your own insidious form of racism when you infantalize minorities, engaging in the soft racism of lowered expectations. You are making a mockery of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy with this perverse obsession with reducing people to their skin color.

    You are wasting taxpayer dollars on nonsense that you cannot even articulate without leaning on the empty buzzwords of critical race theory and poisonous woke ideology.

    Instead of waging a war against phantoms, do something productive and fight the tidal wave of misinformation, conspiracy theories and scientific illiteracy that prevents people from getting vaccinated.

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