Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared racism a public health crisis at the Martin Luther King Jr. exhibit in North Lawndale. (Pascal Sabino/Block Club Chicago)

Chicago is battling another public health crisis alongside the global coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said on June 17.

Systemic racism.

The declaration of racism as a public health crisis comes as the city wrestles with the disparate impact of the coronavirus pandemic that fell hardest on Black and Latinx communities. Chicago follows in the footsteps of about 150 cities and counties across more than two dozen states that have declared racism is a public health issue.

Lightfoot made the announcement at an exhibit honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The devastation of the pandemic “laid bare” how systemic racism impacts people’s health, not only through access to care but also through social determinants of health like income and food scarcity, Lightfoot said.

“At almost every single point in our city’s history, racism has taken a devastating toll on the health and well-being of our residents of color — especially those who are Black,” Lightfoot said. “Without formally acknowledging this detrimental impact, we will never be able to move forward as a city and fully provide our communities with the resources they need to live happy and healthy lives.”

Lightfoot said the declaration will be backed by city-led initiatives to address social factors that overwhelmingly account for health disparities, including lack of access to housing, public safety, education and economic opportunity, “every single one of which have through our history as a nation have been impacted by systemic racism.”

A report released Tuesday by the city’s public health department revealed jarring disparities in health outcomes for Black Chicagoans.

The report, “The State of Health for Blacks in Chicago,” examined the top drivers for the growing life expectancy gap between Black and non-Black Chicagoans. It estimates Black people in Chicago live 9.2 fewer years than non-Black people.

Findings also show Black Chicagoans have a 70 percent higher death rate for diabetes-related issues. Homicide rates are nine times higher. Black people account for half of people living with HIV. The opioid-related overdose death rate is three times higher, the report found.

Infant mortality rates are nearly three times higher for Black children compared to non-Black children in their first year of life, the report showed. Black women face staggering disparities in maternal health, a separate report found. Black moms are six times more likely to die during pregnancy or soon after childbirth than white moms in Chicago, according to a public health department study.

To address those racialized health disparities, the public health department is creating six Healthy Chicago Equity Zones spanning the entire city in partnership with local community groups in each zone. The department is reallocating $9.6 million in COVID-19 relief funds from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to implement strategies to reduce health inequalities.

“The things that lead to life expectancy gap … are rooted fundamentally in systemic racism,” Lightfoot said, “but they manifest themselves in lots of different ways. So what we have been trying to do is counteract that history, that legacy by making the kinds of investments, public housing, and public health, in the support services that we provide.”

Local partners for the Healthy Chicago Equity Zones are Phalanx Family Services, Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation, Swedish Covenant Hospital, Northwest Side Housing Center, Southwest Organizing Project and Rush University Medical Center.

This year, the program will focus primarily on increasing vaccine uptake in communities hardest hit by the pandemic, said Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the city public health department. In the future, the zones will shift gears to “confront the root factors” of health inequalities like lack of access to health care and social services, food scarcity, housing conditions, public safety and the built neighborhood environments, Arwady said.

“Life opportunities, from education to employment to housing, are different in neighborhoods just a few miles apart. And this is the evidence of deeply rooted social, structural and power inequities that have long privileged white Chicagoans,” Arwady said.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.