On Monday, April 27, 2015, the images in Baltimore from parts of the city were surreal. Burning cars and buildings. Smashed windows. Looted stores. Phalanxes of police in riot gear. The governor declaring a state of emergency. The National Guard being summoned. This is what was occurring in parts of Baltimore during the ensuing protests in the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death. As I was writing this, I could still hear the blare of sirens and rumbling of helicopters in the distance. Not all of Baltimore was directly affected, of course, but the images were striking enough to garner international attention. Friends from other countries wrote me with their thoughts and concerns.
When such harrowing events occur, the public's attention is initially very intense but then soon moves to other more immediate events like who is wearing what during the Academy Awards. However, a large part of the impact may occur long after the headlines have faded. In fact, many of the people perpetrating the violence hurt their own communities and thus themselves, their friends, and their families. The riots and looting affected businesses that provided jobs, goods, and services to low income communities. Now these businesses and jobs may be gone. Some may never return.
An often overlooked consequence of any major disruption is health. This goes beyond just the immediate physical injuries suffered. Certainly, tragic events can lead to psychological stress and pessimism, which scientists like Hilary Tindle at Vanderbilt University have shown are not good for health. But let us not overlook environmental and longer term social effects.
For example, many of these communities in Baltimore are already "food deserts" with shortages of businesses that sell healthy foods, as investigators from the Global Obesity Prevention Center (GOPC) and the Center for Livable Future (CLF) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have shown. Lack of access to healthy food can lead to poor nutrition and obesity. The looting and damage affected some of the few businesses that provide healthy foods to these communities and could deter others from entering the community, making already bad food environments worse. This possibility is particularly unsettling after seeing the day-to-day hard work of so many in Baltimore to improve the food environment of the low income neighborhoods. The violent actions of a small fraction of Baltimore residents do not represent the entire city and have overshadowed the tireless efforts of so many, many people working together, ranging from the mayor's and City Council members' offices to store owners to community leaders to faculty, students, and staff at Baltimore-area schools and universities to various other organizations throughout the city.
Even though one may think of health as an individual issue, health and diseases often reflect underlying social, political, and economic situations in a community... and vice versa.
It is much harder to stay healthy when the environment around you does not facilitate good health. And poorer health can impede economic development and lead to frustration and tension. Each of us is not on an island but really part of a system that includes our social networks and environment. When that system is damaged or broken in any way, everyone's health is at risk.
And that system extends well beyond one neighborhood, one city, or even one state. The effects of last week's turmoil may not be confined to just Baltimore city. One wonders how many businesses will think twice about locating in low income neighborhoods across the country thus worsening existing food deserts. This would be a shame since the actions of relatively few do not represent everyone in Baltimore or low income neighborhoods across the country or world.
And higher income neighborhoods are not necessarily "insulated" from what happens in lower income neighborhoods. For instance, health problems lead to greater burden on our healthcare system and our economy. Many people from lower income neighborhoods work in higher income neighborhoods, are important parts of the workforce for many businesses, and may not be as productive if saddled with poorer health. The health of lower income communities affects all communities. We are all connected no matter how distant one may seem.
The hope is that the disruption in Baltimore will lead to steps to prevent such events from occurring here or anywhere else in the future. Time and more investigation will shed more light on what happened to Freddie Gray. But at the same time, we should not forget the potential health situations and effects that Baltimore and communities around the country may continue to face once the headlines fade.