Updated: Jun 29, 2021
In a country ravaged by a pandemic and social injustice, a pediatrician reflects on how Dr. King’s legacy shows us a path forward
As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and look forward to Black History Month, pediatrician and Diva Docs leader Dr. Philomena Asante reflects on the challenges and promise that lie ahead.
More than 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, we still are struggling to achieve many of the things he fought for so fervently: Social justice. Equality. Peace. Unity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on communities of color, claiming the lives of Black and brown Americans at nearly three times the death rate of their white peers and exacerbating existing health inequities. These disparities stem from decades of racial injustice—seeds of structural and institutional racism planted years ago—which have resulted in people of color being more likely to be exposed to the virus and often less able to protect themselves through easy access to testing and adequate personal protective equipment. The effects are plainly seen.
In the U.S., frontline workers are disproportionately people of color. If you are an essential worker, you likely had to go to work in the early stages of the pandemic, when we did not yet know the true nature of this virus or the most effective way to protect ourselves from it. You may not have had adequate PPE or even paid sick time to stay home. On the other hand, if you have a higher-paying office job, you likely have been able to work remotely.
If you do not have health insurance, you may have been reluctant to go to the doctor or hospital if you were short of breath or spiked a fever, whereas if you are insured, you may have immediately sought medical care that helped save your life.
If you live in a crowded apartment building with several generations of your family, you are at greater risk for contracting the virus and transmitting it to those you love. If you can afford larger living quarters or live in a safe neighborhood with lots of green space, you are better able to maintain physical distance and do activities outdoors that help spare you from infection.
We know racism itself leads to chronic stress, and stress is correlated with chronic diseases such obesity, hypertension and heart disease. These preexisting health conditions can in turn increase your risk of getting seriously ill with infections like COVID, in a vicious cycle. Black and brown people also have been devastated by the pandemic’s economic fallout. The health care crisis and resulting recession have turned the racial divide that exists in many areas of our society—access to basic necessities such as food, housing and health care—into a chasm.
It’s easy to become incredibly discouraged.
I believe Dr. King, even after observing all that is happening in our country right now, would not want us to lose hope in our dreams of racial equality, social justice, and health equity.
Instead, Dr. King would have asked what each one of us is doing in this moment to keep moving forward: How are we going to defeat these two pervasive viruses—COVID-19 and racism? How do we address the health inequities the pandemic has brought into such sharp focus?
The answers to both questions are the same, and they lie in Dr. King’s teachings: We have to listen to each other, come together, and care about each other, as Dr. King taught us to do. We all have a role to play in having honest, difficult conversations. We must create safe spaces to talk about race and racism so we can start to confront our own fears and our fears about each other.
And we need to take a hard look at the role conscious and unconscious biases play in our health care system, including how people of different backgrounds can access health care and the quality of the care they receive.
If we’re truly going to have an antiracist society, it begins with people of all races interacting with each other, learning more about each other, and understanding each other.
Let us not forget that Dr. King created a coalition of people of all races, ethnicities and religious faiths who came together, bound by the idea of racial equality and social justice.
When we come together and understand the person next to us shares some of the same hopes, dreams, worries and concerns—and that they’re not the enemy, but human just like us—we can finally begin to heal. And we can finally begin to care about each other. When we care about each other, we care about the uninsured, underinsured, food-insecure, homeless and mentally ill. When we care about each other, we wear a mask. When we care about each other, we physically distance and wash our hands. When we care about each other, we work to ensure that those from disadvantaged communities have equal access to the COVID vaccine. When we care about each other, we make sure those who are at the highest risk of contracting or getting seriously ill with COVID—such as the elderly, people with preexisting health conditions, those who work in frontline jobs, and those who reside in group homes or institutions—get the vaccine first.
We know that as a society, we are only as healthy as our sickest neighbor.
The great irony of this virus is that no matter how fractured and bruised our country is, we must come together to defeat it. We can’t do it alone. That’s why Dr. King’s message—of equality, hope and, most importantly, of unity—is as fitting now as it ever was.