Arab/Muslim Health: We’re All in This Together

15 October, 2020

(Photo: iStock / Getty Images)

(Pho­to: iStock / Get­ty Images)

Hasheemah Afaneh

I was not think­ing of pub­lic health when the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of 2012—the first in which I was eli­gi­ble to vote—was around the cor­ner. I also was not yet con­nect­ing the dots around me when it came to pub­lic health, and it would be a few years before I was to come across the con­cept of “health in all poli­cies” in an aca­d­e­m­ic textbook.

At the time I was in the West Bank of Pales­tine, start­ing my sec­ond year of under­grad­u­ate stud­ies at Birzeit Uni­ver­si­ty. I remem­ber lis­ten­ing to one of my class­mates’ excite­ment as she went through the motions of cast­ing her first absen­tee bal­lot. The rest of us Amer­i­can cit­i­zens were not too thrilled with the elec­tion sea­son or out­come pos­si­bil­i­ties. All of us, includ­ing the class­mate, expe­ri­enced first­hand, the con­stant dis­ap­point­ment that came along with the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion not being dif­fer­ent in its stance on Pales­tine and the Pales­tini­ans. That is what mat­tered to us, liv­ing in the West Bank sur­round­ed by ever-expand­ing set­tle­ments and barriers. 

Late last year, I found myself reflect­ing on the sen­ti­ment of that peri­od of time whilst in con­ver­sa­tion with an acquain­tance about the upcom­ing elec­tions. She was curi­ous about the take of Arab and Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties on vot­ing, since those demo­graph­ics were not as famil­iar to her as were oth­ers. I could­n’t give her exact num­bers, and I find that I still can’t, but I shared with her a com­mon sen­ti­ment about vot­ing that the com­mu­ni­ties I am a part of hold. With the Unit­ed States’ con­stant med­dling in Arab and Mus­lim coun­tries, vot­ing becomes a com­pli­cat­ed right for Arab and Mus­lim Amer­i­cans. One the one hand, there are local, region­al and nation­al issues to con­sid­er; on the oth­er hand, there are for­eign poli­cies and rela­tions to con­sid­er. Head­ing to the polls to vote this year is no dif­fer­ent, but I still have a plan to exer­cise the right to vote this year. 

“But [this time], we’re vot­ing for pub­lic health,” she remarked. 

Indeed, this year put the ‘pub­lic’ back in pub­lic health. Susan Jaf­fe’s report in The Lancet on pub­lic health and the U.S. elec­tions out­lines where each pres­i­den­tial can­di­date stands on the con­tem­po­rary pub­lic health issues: Covid-19, wom­en’s health, gun vio­lence, and the opi­oid epi­dem­ic. From the pan­dem­ic to police vio­lence and racism, the impact of these issues on the health of the pub­lic, specif­i­cal­ly minori­ties, can­not be ignored. Data around the health of Arab and Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties in Amer­i­ca is lim­it­ed for a num­ber of rea­sons, such as not being count­ed in the cen­sus as their own cat­e­gories and the con­fla­tion of Arab and Mus­lim iden­ti­ties, so these com­mu­ni­ties are rarely men­tioned in the main­stream health con­ver­sa­tions of the coun­try. Despite these lim­i­ta­tions, there are a num­ber of stud­ies that speak to the health of Arab Amer­i­cans . Though the preva­lence of the health issues that Arab Amer­i­cans face is dif­fer­ent than oth­er eth­nic groups across the U.S., the health issues them­selves are not and include chron­ic dis­eases, such as dia­betes and car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, as well as men­tal ill­ness. Poli­cies tar­get­ing Arab and Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties in  the U.S., as out­lined by Dr. James Zog­bi, have health con­se­quences even if the poli­cies are not brought to light with a pub­lic health lens. 

As an Arab Mus­lim Amer­i­can pub­lic health pro­fes­sion­al, I have yet to see a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date that is work­ing towards health in all poli­cies, includ­ing edu­ca­tion and hous­ing and an agen­da for glob­al health that acknowl­edges the impact of wars and con­flict, which are direct­ly or indi­rect­ly fund­ed by the U.S. Cer­tain­ly, Arab and Mus­lim vot­ers took note when the Trump admin­is­tra­tion pulled fund­ing in last May from the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion (WHO) and with­drew all Pales­tin­ian aid in 2019, harm­ing Pales­tini­ans in the West Bank and Gaza, fur­ther impact­ing glob­al health. 

I have been think­ing about my acquain­tance’s sen­ti­ment on vot­ing for pub­lic health. Pub­lic health is not impact­ed by a sin­gle issue, and it does not impact every­one in the same way. I think that as a coun­try, we have a long way to go before we get to the point where health is duti­ful­ly con­sid­ered in all poli­cies, despite the reck­on­ing with the coun­try’s his­to­ry of racism and the calls for social jus­tice seen this year. 

We must demand to get to a point where health is not a mat­ter of debate, where uni­ver­sal health care is the default and not a “rad­i­cal idea”. Mak­ing uni­ver­sal health­care the default means that as a nation, we have agreed that pub­lic health extends beyond the field and that we have under­stood that the nation would be a step clos­er to elim­i­nat­ing health dis­par­i­ties; that no mat­ter what our back­ground is, Arab, Mus­lim or any­thing in between, we are glob­al cit­i­zens, and the impact of the poli­cies we advo­cate and vote for reach­es beyond our doorsteps into Amer­i­can neighborhoods.

Hasheemah Afaneh is a writer and pub­lic health pro­fes­sion­al based in New Orleans. She has writ­ten for the Fair Observ­er, Huff­Post, This Week in Pales­tine and oth­ers, with work forth­com­ing in Rust­ed Radish­es and Inter­na­tion­al Poet­ry Review.