It may always be necessary for us as a society, to pay careful attention to the impact of our laws, policies, and practices on racial and ethnic groups and consciously strive to ensure that biases, stereotypes, and structural arraignments do not cause unnecessary harm or suffering to any individual or any group for reasons related to race.”- Michelle Alexander, a highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, legal scholar and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness 

Commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination 

According to the United Nations, an estimated 200 million people of African descent live in the Americas alone, with many more situated in areas outside the cradle of mankind. These peoples’ like any other human being, are worthy of human rights; even as migrants, or descendants of those that suffered under the transatlantic slave trade. They deserve to have their rights protected and promoted, to live in peace and in a world free of oppression and discrimination. Unfortunately however, to this present era, those of African descent constitute some of the poorest, most vulnerable groups facing significant barriers. These include access to quality education, healthcare services, and affordable housing among more. 

This year, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination celebrated on March 21 is focused on the International Decade for People of African Descent. Inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement due to police officers not being indicted for killing unarmed innocent young black men, the social movement tackles the issue of racialized police violence, among the many harsh injustices faced by people of color. The day also serves as a call to action for us as leaders of tomorrow. It provides us with insight to unite in strategizing a reformed public health agenda; one that especially acknowledges the connection between racism and the social determinants of health. 

The Beginnings of Recognizing the International Day 

Historically however, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination served to commemorate the events in the city of Sharpeville, South Africa, when in 1960, during apartheid, police opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful protest. These civilians were advocating for change by challenging officials to remove the racist, and discriminatory “pass laws”. These laws were far from helpful as they required those of color to have a “pass” or a ticket stamp at all times in order to gain access to certain services. So many were refused respect as human beings of the same species with equal rights just because of the color of their skin. Ever since South Africa became a democratic country, and dismantled the apartheid system, and while the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is nearing universal ratification, too many individuals and communities continue to suffer from the stigma and injustice that racism brings. 

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is no surprise that racism, xenophobia, discrimination and intolerance have worsened. Being far from new and prevalent in society since the beginning of humankind, addressing racism is central to eliminating health disparities, breaking down racist institutional structures and living up to the values of an “open society”.

Black people continue to have higher rates of morbidity and mortality than white persons. Similarly, Hispanics and Indigenours populations also have elevated disease and death rates and although the role of medical care as a determinant of health is often limited, medical care in the form of prevention through early intervention and the appropriate management of chronic disease can play an important role in health. As such, understanding and addressing racial disparities is critical to ending racial discrimination. 

What Can We as Global Health & Healthcare Professionals Do? 

As global health and healthcare professionals, it is of utmost importance that:

  1. We acknowledge racism’s pervasiveness and that we stand up against racial prejudice and intolerant attitudes. 
  2. We must actively engage with communities of color to deepen our understanding of the persistent and complex ways that structural racism, questioning our own unconscious bias and how that affects individual and community-level health. 
  3. We need to go beyond merely documenting health disparities and disseminating findings in scientific forums or conferences, but should instead expand our professional responsibility to include community grassroots advocacy. 
  4. We must advocate for relevant policies that improve health in communities of color, and support local, provincial, and national initiatives in our countries that advance social justice. 
  5. We need to form strong partnerships with global health institutions and organizations so that our impact and reach is furthered everywhere paying close attention to the voices from communities of color. 

It is for this reason that the United Nations recognizes particular international days of importance, with the aim of educating the public on issues of concern. The objective is to mobilize all sectors of society to address global problems. By urging reflection, discussion and through increased awareness celebrating the achievements of humanity it provides promise for reversing current inequities. 

The tragic deaths of Travyon Martin, Breona Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and George Floyd among others remind us of the importance of critically evaluating our work, values and impact. Race matters and black lives matter but more than anything, a mutual understanding and respect, that is so simple yet still remains an unlearned lesson for many, needs to become an intrinsic part of our societal being, as well as the need for reconciliation for the racial inequality that has been entwined with the foundation of our institutions for centuries.

Leah Sarah Peer
Leah Sarah Peer

Leah Sarah Peer is a medical student at Saint James School of Medicine and a graduate of Concordia University, Specialization in Biology, Minor in Human Rights in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. She is passionate about the intersection of health and human rights, and as an advocate for social justice and global health, she strives to become a compassionate leader in service to humanity.

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