October 20, 2022

O’Neill and Lancet Commission, co-led by U.N. Special Rapporteur on right to health, seeks to identify anti-racist strategies to improve health globally

New York (21 October 2022) – On the sidelines of the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly, the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health at Georgetown University announced today a new O’Neill-Lancet Commission on Racism, Structural Discrimination and Global Health. The three-year Commission will comprise of close to 20 experts from across the globe to promote anti-racist strategies and actions that will reduce barriers to health and wellbeing facing communities on the basis of race, ethnicity, tribe, caste, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, ability, class, geography or religion.

The concept of the Commission is founded on the recognition that racism, rather than race, creates and maintains unjust and avoidable health inequities in countries around the world. Racial and ethnic disparities in health outcomes are increasingly recognized worldwide. The Commission starts from the premise that racism is a transnational phenomenon that requires global solutions, both inside and outside the health sector. While national racism has been researched in some countries, racism as a driver of health inequities is not sufficiently understood and addressed as a phenomenon that spans borders.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically highlighted the urgency of addressing racism directly when it comes to health,” said Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, Commission co-chair, and United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. “It has also raised critical questions about the continuing colonial relationships undergirding global health efforts. Now is the time to confront this reality and accept that too little progress has been achieved to reduce discrimination in health.”

The spread of COVID-19 highlighted how socioeconomic inequalities, systemic racism and structural discrimination influence not only the risk and impact of disease, but also access to quality treatment and care. A year into the pandemic, a U.K. government inquiry on minority ethnic groups and COVID-19 found that institutional racism and bullying discouraged and prevented Black, Asian and minority ethnic nurses from speaking up about situations that put them more at risk for COVID-19. Ultimately, the inquiry found that these groups had a 10 to 50% higher risk of dying from COVID-19 when compared to White British nurses. 

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism was also evident as world leaders failed to grant a patient waiver for COVID-19 vaccines. This would have ensured wider, earlier access to vaccinations for people living in Africa and parts of Southeast Asia,” added Dr. Mofokeng.

The  announcement of the Commission comes on the heels of Dr. Mofokeng presenting her report on “Racism and the right to health” to the United Nations General Assembly on October 20. The report highlights how, “rooted in colonialism, slavery and other historical power imbalances, racism continues to manifest itself in poor and preventable health outcomes worldwide, such as glaring disparities in maternal mortality and morbidity, and higher risk levels of communicable and non-communicable diseases.”

The report documents varied ways in which racism impacts health, including language barriers, residential segregation that distances some populations from key health services, and structural racism in areas like education that ultimately lead to poorer health outcomes for some populations. Historically, these racial inequities have been documented as determinants of health. This Commission will go beyond simply documenting these disparities, as that is insufficient for understanding the connections between race, ethnicity, structural discrimination and global health.

“It is too easy to see race, rather than racism, as a driver of poor health outcomes and to dismiss these as the products of particular historical contexts,” said Dr. Ngozi Erondu, Commission co-chair and senior scholar, O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. “That narrow view misses both the local and international causes of racial inequities.”

The Commission will also investigate specific outcomes seen across countries and consult communities to understand their causes and impact. For example, it is well-documented that in many countries around the world, maternal mortality rates are rooted in both gender and racial injustices. In the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, for example, Black women are four times more likely, and Asian women twice as likely, to die in childbirth than White women. In Brazil, women of African descent are approximately five times more likely to die in childbirth than White women. The Commission will further impact these outcomes and examine their transnational implications.

Recognizing that global health financing and foreign aid between colonial powers and formerly colonized regions are shaped by the legacy of these relationships, the Commission will also set out to examine and challenge current global health governance systems and structures.

“We’ve known for some time now that racism leads to increased rates of sickness and death,” added Dr. Erondu. “Our aim with this Commission is to not only further document and unpack these realities on a global level, but most importantly help promote meaningful change. And we’re doing this by bringing together individuals who are not only experts in their respective fields, but who have experienced racism and structural discrimination and fight against it for their communities”

To achieve its goals, the Commission has set out four charges:

  1. Diagnose the problem of racism in health globally, by reviewing existing national and cross-national evidence on racism in health in a global context. The Commission will then describe the effects of racial and ethnic discrimination and its intersections on health at a national and international level.
  2. Identify best practices and actionable anti-racist strategies, by, among other activities, holding consultations with people who have lived experiences of structural discrimination in health, to discover how racist structures in select countries were addressed to close health equity gaps.
  3. Compile a report of its findings, highlighting the strategies, tactics and actionable lessons that other countries can use to develop anti-racist approaches in the sphere of health policy and service delivery to ensure equitable and just health outcomes.
  4. Disseminate its findings widely to the public, to ensure that the anti-racist strategies and actionable lessons produced are used and contribute a body of knowledge to augment efforts to decolonize global health.

“Now is the time for the public health and human rights communities to come together to recognize the ways that racism, structural discrimination and the long-lasting impacts and remnants of colonialism and oppression shape our health and well-being,” said Dr. Mofokeng. “This Commission will help bring new voices to the table that can share learnings and solutions across borders to address these issues with the level of attention and urgency they deserve.”


Notes to editors

To find out more about the work of the Commission, visit: https://oneill.law.georgetown.edu/projects/the-oneill-lancet-commission-on-racism-structural-discrimination-and-global-health/

Commissioners will be appointed by the Commission co-chairs in consultation with The Lancet, independent thought leaders, academics and civil society organizations working in health and racial justice. The global group will span across academia, medicine, law and civil-society leaders, bridging work on public health, racial discrimination, law, human rights and public policy.


For more information, contact:

Cynthia Sun: Cynthia.Sun@georgetown.edu

Nick Seaver: nseaver@burness.com