What is public health justice, and how do we fight for it?

It’s about spreading awareness of the disparities and the inequalities created by unequal distributions of money, power, and resources within the public health sector and fighting for those most impacted by demanding policy changes. 

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Public health justice is a form of social justice that believes everyone deserves equal opportunities and rights to good health. However, health justice is not only about understanding what health equity is but about acknowledging the barriers, unfair practices, and inequalities in our health system that specifically impact marginalized communities based on race, class, age, and gender. 

It’s one thing to say that you believe everyone deserves equal access to quality healthcare, but it’s another thing entirely to fight for it. This is what public health justice aims to do—to inform and advocate. It’s about spreading awareness of the disparities and the inequalities created by unequal distributions of money, power, and resources within the public health sector and fighting for those most impacted by demanding policy changes. 

Why health equity matters

A fair and just public health system is necessary to address gaps and ensure everyone has the opportunity to achieve their highest level of health. No one should have to suffer or struggle more than others because of their race, class, or gender. Furthermore, health equity is essential to building strong nations. When your nation’s people struggle to have their basic health needs met, it weakens the overall structure of society by creating a nation of people who are torn apart by inequality rather than a people who are stronger together. 

Inequalities and issues across the public health sector

The U.S. public health system is brimming with inequalities and discriminatory practices that negatively impact thousands of Americans. The pandemic was particularly eye-opening to how these disparities affect marginalized communities—proving, even more, the need for swift and effective change.  

Below are some of the primary issues and concerns within the public health sector today:

Racial inequalities

Structural racism is a major issue in today’s society, especially where public health is concerned. More than 30% of healthcare costs faced by Hispanics, Blacks, and Asian-Americans are directly linked to health inequalities. Hawaiian populations and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. are particularly facing vast health disparities currently. In Los Angeles, California alone, Hawaiian populations have five times the COVID infection rate of white people as a result of racist and discriminatory policies and systems. 

As a result of inequitable access to care, POC populations overall are less healthy and suffer from higher rates of disease. And even when they do manage to have access to care, their treating clinicians often have racial bias and use discriminatory practices, and they also tend to face higher healthcare costs.  

Sexist policies

Women are also considered a part of the impacted marginalized communities, especially women of color. For years, women have fought for equal rights only to still face sexist policies that limit their access to the healthcare they need. Just as there is a racial bias in the healthcare system, there is also a gender bias. Women tend to be taken less seriously by their doctors, often being seen as hysterical or dramatic, resulting in a lack of care and treatment. 

Reproductive rights are also a major issue impacting women’s health. Access to abortion and birth control are not accessible to all women, especially those in poor, marginalized communities. And even those that do have access tend to face immense criticism and hate, causing them to feel shame and neglect their needs. While many states and local governments are fighting for equitable women’s health, others are working to place more restrictions on women and overturn policies to take away their rights.  

Geographic and wealth disparities

People in poor, rural communities tend to face more inequalities than those in wealthy, urban areas. There are, of course, wealth disparities no matter the geographic location, and people with lower incomes tend to face more hardships, especially where access to healthcare is concerned. But those in rural areas have even less access because of lower wages and limited access to quality healthcare facilities and services. 

Those in low-income, rural locations also tend to suffer higher rates of disease and obesity because of their limited access to healthy foods. Food companies purposely use addictive ingredients in unhealthy foods to keep people coming back for more, and, unfortunately, these are the types of foods poor rural communities have the most access to. This limited access to healthy foods and healthcare results in severe disparities that significantly impact the health and well-being of those who can’t afford to live in more populated, urban areas. 

How to advocate for a more just public health system

People who work in healthcare, social and criminal justice, and government have a responsibility to take action because they have the power to affect change on a higher level. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t contribute and fight for health justice if you don’t work in those areas. There are many ways citizens can get involved to help push for policy changes to create a more equitable public health system. This includes:

  • Understanding your rights and the rights of others and helping to educate and uplift those you know.
  • Actively engaging in conversations about the disparities in the health system to inform others and kindle the fire to fight for social justice. 
  • Form groups or mobilize your community to take action against health injustices.
  • Participate in peaceful protests and marches to spread awareness. 
  • Sign petitions and contact your local policymakers to share your ideas and concerns and push them to make changes. 
  • Get involved in community events or ask experts how you can get involved to help make a difference. 
  • Actively speak out against racism, voter restrictions, gender bias, and discriminatory practices that affect access to quality healthcare.  

Final thoughts

A fair and equitable health system will never happen if we don’t continuously fight and push for necessary changes. It can understandably feel overwhelming at times, especially if you don’t hold a job in the healthcare, government, or justice system sectors. Though one individual may feel inconsequential, when that one person speaks up, they can inspire others to do the same. 

One of the most critical aspects of public health justice is simply spreading the word to help others better understand the inequities and injustices in our society. Over time, the more we speak out and the more we take action, the sooner we can start building a more equitable future where everyone has access to the healthcare they need.

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