Kwanele Asante: George Floyd’s death—a catalyst for global anti-racism movements

George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police in the US has sparked a global movement against racial injustice. His death has seized the attention of world leaders and institutions of power around the world. People from black and ethnic minorities have been afforded global platforms and time (more than two weeks so far and counting) to bear frank witness to the potentially life-threatening effects and pernicious health harms of institutionalized racism. Moral outrage has galvanized members of the United States Democratic Party to take a knee in US Congress in remembrance of George Floyd and in protest against structural racism and police power.  

Predominately white senior US politicians taking a knee at the seat of American power is an historic show of solidarity with people who have borne the brunt of racial discrimination and oppression for generations. Taking a knee is a symbol of political protest popularised Colin Kaepernick, National Football League (NFL) 49ers quarterback in 2016, when he decided to kneel on the sidelines of the pitch while the American national anthem was sung in protest against the ongoing killings and racial abuse of African-Americans by the US police. [1] Other NFL players started joining him, leading to a national debate about whether an individual can be both patriotic and morally conscious? [1] As a black person I have had to negotiate the psychological dichotomy between my national and racial identities in a pervasively racist world. Black people like me are expected to be proud patriots of our countries of birth while constantly being made to feel like marginalised insider-outsiders. African-American sociologist W.E.B Du Bois summed this sense of black twoness up as follows, “how far can love for my oppressed race accord with love for the oppressing country? And when these loyalties diverge. Where could (his/her) soul rest?”[2] 

I have spent days listening to anti-racist testimonies from people of African-ancestry around the world and wonder how the death of George Floyd has become this extraordinary catalytic moment in the global fight for racial justice. To my mind, two deadly global pandemics—covid-19 and structural racism—have captured people’s attention in a manner not witnessed since the era of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Floyd’s brutal death caught our attention because the covid-19 pandemic had already quietened us from our daily busyness. His death found millions of us at home sheltering, vulnerable, and concerned about our individual and loved ones’ health, mortality and overall wellbeing. His death reached us when we were emotionally and cognitively available to could see, hear, and listen to black people’s urgent cries for a just, equitable, and anti-racist world. The global moral outrage at his death is so palpable that people around the globe seem prepared to risk getting infected with covid-19, during public protests, in pursuit of a greater public good—anti-racism and justice.

Unsurprisingly, Floyd’s death has afforded the medical fraternity and global health policy-making community an opportunity to earnestly reflect on structural racism and race discrimination in medicine. Earlier this year, The BMJ started critical academic discourses on race, racism, and power in a special issue on racism in medicine. [3] Numerous other sociological and biomedical research articles have been written about global health disparities that result in a lack of regular and equitable access to essential diagnostic tests and treatments for African Americans and other black populations throughout the world. Similarly, much is routinely written about Sub-Saharan Africa’s disproportionate burdens of communicable and non-communicable diseases, which often lead to deaths, disabilities, and avoidable human suffering. We know that “health and health disparities are embedded in larger historical, geographic, sociocultural, economic and political contexts.” [4] 

There is increasing evidence that people from ethnic minority communities in the United States and Britain are being disproportionally affected by and dying from covid-19. The disease is spreading faster in South African neighbourhoods with black populations which tend to be more densely populated. Death rates in these areas are rising faster than in predominantly white populations, who tend to be more affluent and  can afford private healthcare. [5]

I would invite everyone to be an ally and to take a stand for global anti-racism and black health justice. We need to start academic, clinical, and social conversations about how structural and everyday racism is harmful to ethnic minorities. 

In my view, ensuring an anti-racist society and advancing black health justice ought to start with each of us involved in global health and public health policy-making. We could start with three things:

  1. Use some of the public resources invested in funding our academic studies and medical research to ask difficult questions about why racial disparities in health continue to grow and to develop strategies to mitigate these disparities
  2. Create space to enable patients from ethnic minorites, biomedical researchers, think tanks and health professionals to frame, articulate and develop socio-culturally appropriate solutions to pervasive and priority black health problems.
  3. Ensure that your research, public health policy, and global health leadership institutions are diverse and inclusive. 

Kwanele Asante is a Lawyer, Bioethicist and member of the WHO Civil Society Working Group on NCDs. She writes in her personal capacity.

Competing interests: None declared.


  1. Understanding the #TakeAKnee, Facing History and Ourselves,  website, Accessed on 10 June 2020
  2. David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography of Race, 1868-1963, Owl Books, 2009, p.102
  3.  BMJ Racism in Medicine Issue published on 11 March 2020
  4. David R Williams and Pamela Braboy Jackson, Social Sources of Racial Disparities in Health, Health Affairs, Vol. 24, No.2: Racial & Ethnic Disparities 
  5. Kim Harrisberg, Coronavirus exposes “brutal inequality’ of S.Africa townships, Thomson Reuters Foundation, published on 12 June 2020