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Posted under: Opinion News

America’s Historical Failure To Prepare For National Emergencies Perpetuate Inequalities

The country's historical failure to prepare for national emergencies should no longer surprise the Black community.

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Opinions are the writer’s own and not those of Blavity's.


All it took was sitting through two hours and three minutes of pretty bad acting from some pretty good actors for me to come to this conclusion. We can’t be this surprised at how long it is taking for us to get through the pandemic when history has shown that the U.S. has responded to almost every national disaster the same: terribly.

I fell upon this realization after Netflix recommended that I watch Cut Throat City, a movie about a group of friends turning to a life of crime during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Long story short, I gave it a thumbs down. Although the movie was not Oscar-worthy, I couldn’t help but notice that Katrina was not the only event in history in which we have seen a failure to act and communicate from our government.

From Katrina in 2005 to the Flint Water Crisis in 2014, the American people are often left scared and clueless for extended periods before any one of our government leaders sheds light on the seriousness of these issues. Another pattern I've noticed is that the groups of people who tend to suffer the most are the ones who are marginalized.

As a public health student, I have gained a newfound interest in educating my peers and making them aware of the social injustices we continue to face. With my lived experience as a Black woman, I want to shed more light on what we go through as a community and be a voice for those who are unable to speak up. Our problems need to be solved on an institutional level. I hope these reminders of America’s negligence towards the Black community will contribute to a paradigm shift in how our issues are dealt with.

When it came to Hurricane Katrina, the government was faced with heavy backlash due to its lack of communication and coordination regarding an evacuation plan. A survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health on some of the evacuees, stated that a vast majority of the participants blamed President George W. Bush and the federal government for their mishandling of the disaster. Because of our leaders' delayed response to the flooding, residents were left without water, food and shelter for days after the storm had passed. There have been numerous claims alleging that race and class may have contributed to the delays.

68% of the survey respondents felt the response would have been quicker if those trapped had been white and wealthier. The catastrophe not only forced the public to become mindful of the issues that were disproportionately affecting communities of color (poverty, unemployment, public policy, etc.), but it helped to expose numerous areas of weakness within government agencies such as FEMA.

Moving on to the preventable debacle that is the Flint Water Crisis, we are given a much less publicized but still clear depiction of our lovely politicians at work. Despite public outrage from Flint residents regarding their water's poor taste and color, it took over a year for government officials to declare a state of emergency. They then provided a list of false promises to the thousands of families whose children had already been exposed to high lead levels. It is also important to note the makeup of the Flint population. A majority of the residents are Black, with nearly half having an income below the poverty level. Coincidence? I think not.

We finally arrive at the virus that has taken over all of our lives: COVID. If your own president makes it a priority to broadcast misinformation regarding the seriousness of a virus, can you really be shocked about how long it is taking us to move past it? From millions of dollars being printed in an attempt to avert an economic crisis to the states each creating their own definition of a “quarantine order," the pandemic is just another instance in which the government has proven its inability to prepare for an emergency.

By now, we know that Black residents are a lot more likely to be affected by COVID than their white neighbors. Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many of us at risk of dying from the virus more than anyone else. This can be attributed to a lack of effort from both the state and local governments to address these issues.

The country's historical failure to prepare for national emergencies should no longer surprise the Black community. Can we find solutions to these recurring problems? Of course, but it won’t be easy.

A significant first step would be to involve more trained professionals in the decision-making process. The elected and appointed officials that we have chosen to hold office do not have the technical training or knowledge to handle situations as large as Katrina or even COVID. The involvement of public health professionals and scientists might have made all the difference. The likes of FEMA, the EPA and the CDC should also consider revising their protocols regarding how to handle these emergencies so they are better equipped for the next one.

If there is one good thing that comes out of these tragedies, it is the increased awareness of the need to have a public health system. For far too long, the healthcare system has prioritized medicine when there should be a heavier focus on improving all aspects of someone’s health. All of the national disasters mentioned also have deep-rooted social issues attached to them. To continue to disregard these issues will only perpetuate the inequalities that have plagued us for so long.

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MPH Candidate at SUNY Downstate Medical Center