CINCINNATI, Ohio — Cincinnati City Council members hope to make the city the latest in the state to declare racism a public health crisis.
Cleveland and Columbus made the declaration in June, and Hamilton County passed a resolution last week.
For Renee Mahaffey-Harris, the CEO of the Center for Closing the Health Gap, it's been a sixteen-year battle to get the city to pay attention to her goals.
"So often people would say, 'Who are you and what do you do and why do you do it?'" she said.
Now in the midst of a global pandemic, Harris said people are waking up to the fact that the United States has been fighting another crisis for centuries.
“The fact that COVID-19 is taking the impact on our country and our world is horrific, however COVID-19 made it clearer to see what the disparities are in our health in this country," she said.
In Ohio, only 13 percent of the population is Black, but African Americans account for a quarter of the state's coronavirus cases and nearly a fifth of the state's deaths.
“Those root causes in many cases and the data shows that they’re born by the stress that we live as Black people in America,” Harris said.
According to Harris, conditions like poverty, unequal access to healthcare, education, and employment opportunities have a direct relationship with the underlying conditions that leave a person vulnerable to diabetes and hypertension.
Harris said systemic racism is behind those conditions, defining where someone lives in Cincinnati, their access to generational wealth, who they interact with, and how people in authority treat them.
"I don’t think that I'm going to easily change the mind of someone who doesn’t see it as race, but I do think that there are enough people who are understanding that we must be humane in our efforts to make sure that this country, this state, is equal for everyone,” she said.
While coronavirus has made this issue seem more urgent, Harris said racism has an even greater impact. Data shows in Cincinnati alone there are race gaps in maternal mortality, infant mortality, and life expectancy.
“It should never be that your race dictates your quality of care, how long you live, the amount and impact of disease,” Harris said.
The health disparities are so prevalent, they can change in a matter of blocks in Cincinnati. According to the city, in the predominantly white neighborhood of North Avondale, most people live well into their eighties but less than a mile south in Avondale, people on average don't live past 69.
Cincinnati Council Member P.G. Sittenfeld, one of the sponsors of the resolution said he hopes declaring a crisis is the first step in urging the city to respond.
“These gaps and disparities didn’t just come about randomly," he said. "They are a direct result of racism and systems of inequity and that’s why it’s necessary for governments to step in.”
After working to fight those disparities for sixteen years, Harris said the city can't stop here.
“I sometimes feel like I’m losing when I look at the continued disparate outcomes," she said.
Now, she's hoping this resolution proves she won't be alone in her battle.
“I’m hoping that the more that we can uncover the data that demonstrates these inequities, that we will have an opportunity to sit at tables together and talk about what needs to happen so that there is equality for all," she said.
Cincinnati City Council will vote on the resolution in August once meetings reconvene.
See the city council's resolution below.