Two deadly crises are hitting our country — the pandemic, which has sickened more than 3 million people and claimed more than 130,000 lives, and the wave of police brutality, which has led to the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others.

Both crises exert a heavy toll on the Black community. Consider that counties with high Black populations account for 23% of coronavirus deaths, despite representing just 13% of the population, according to the CDC. This means their mortality rate is double their population share — and roughly twice that of whites.

What is producing this disproportionality? “The pattern we see for COVID with African-Americans we’ve seen for more than 100 years for every major leading cause of death in the U.S.,” from heart disease and diabetes to infant mortality and hypertension, Dr. David Williams, a Harvard professor of public health, told CNN. 

Driving these health disparities is the Black-white gap in income and education, a gap which, Williams said, hasn’t changed since 1978 and which has left the former more vulnerable.

“Too many Black people in this country face poorer economic prospects than whites, poorer diet and poorer access to care,” observed Gil Bashe, managing partner, global health at Finn Partners, in a recent thought piece. “No money, no healthy food and no decent care net out quickly to poor health outcomes.

“This is not biology at work,” Bashe wrote. “It is systemic racism.” 

Racism is a public health crisis no less severe than Alzheimer’s disease or cancer, and we need to start making more progress against it. 

The good news? We can. “As an industry of problem-solvers, we need to focus our collective attention to meet the unique challenges of this moment,” urged the 4A’s president and CEO Marla Kaplowitz in a note to industry. “We have the power to influence and change the culture.”

And with that power comes the responsibility “to go beyond declaring racism unacceptable,” explained Kaplowitz, to taking action to ensure proper representation.

“We must hire Black people,” she wrote. “We must hear Black people. We must promote Black people. And we must ensure advertising includes everyone.”

Moreover, let’s stop relying on Black colleagues or people of color to drive these necessary changes. We all need to do our part in stopping violence and taking down the racial barriers that exist in our country. 

This is an opportunity for business leaders to step up and enhance unity. I’ve been heartened to see how health marketing agencies and biopharma companies have been evolving the discussion around racism, inequality, police brutality and other issues highlighted by the recent killings.

Sure, I saw plenty of press statements and social media postings in support of the #BlackoutTuesday movement and other cosmetic displays of solidarity. But since then, I’ve seen many concrete actions, too, demonstrating a solid commitment by industry to correcting these grave injustices. 

In the words of Global Blood Therapeutics’ CEO Dr. Ted Love, “I’m going to reserve judgment on all of us until I see change — continued, concerted attention and action [against systemic racism].” I will do so as well. 

But like Love, I also have a lot of faith that our industry, whose members are united through their collective compassion, can begin to make progress in this extremely vital endeavor.