Saying a big ‘No!’ to racism, excessive police force, and health disparities

antiracismcsdocs-300x218Like a patient already struggling with serious illness or injury, the nation saw its underlying conditions flare up  in distressing fashion in recent days:

The country first found itself grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic that has infected almost 2 million and killed more than 100,000. It gasped as the economy plunged and joblessness hit rates unseen in decades. Now, from coast to coast, people are confronting racism, injustice, inequity, and authorities’ excessive use of force.

The ugliness almost has become too much to bear.

These trying times demand that some basic truths be raised up, yet again.

Health care in the world’s wealthiest nation needs to be a right, not a privilege. Americans spend $3.7 trillion on a system that consumes roughly 18% — one in six dollars — of GDP, and for that price, it is unacceptable that disparities abound and are so injurious to the lives of poor, black, and brown men, women, and children.

The novel coronavirus has driven home, yet again, how issues of affordability, access, safety, and quality in the U.S. health system mean that black and brown Americans, in comparison with others of us, get sicker, suffer more, and die due to disease and injury.

Experts have much to investigate — and maybe to answer for — in the terrible toll that Covid-19 is taking on African Americans and Latinos.

As public health measures have shut down the lives and livelihoods of so many, communities of color — already disadvantaged and struggling — have been slammed even harder. Women, notably black women, have borne a disproportionate brunt of the pandemic’s economic devastation.

The killing of a handcuffed George Floyd by police caused too many societal problems to explode, leading masses of Americans to take to the street to cry out: Enough is enough.

The protests, mostly peaceful and principled, have mustered so many participants that public health experts are expressing concern about the possibility of spiking Covid-19 cases. Even while many demonstrators wore face coverings and tried to maintain distance in their marches and gatherings, experts have urged that anyone who has taken part in a protest consider getting a coronavirus test, soon.

Because the infection takes time before its symptoms show — and it is notorious for having asymptomatic carriers — the nation may not know for a time whether the outrage over racial discrimination and police brutality worsens the pandemic.

Even public health and protesting has become politically divisive, though, again, basics matter:

It is an important, fundamental right — engraved in the First Amendment — for Americans to assemble peacefully and to protest injustice to seek changes in our constitutional democracy.

Criminals who take advantage of mass gatherings to engage in lawless acts should be arrested and prosecuted.

Officials — politicians and police —  should not act with excessive force, in controlling large groups, and in arresting or detaining individuals whom officers plan to charge.

The repeated incidents of rough behavior by authorities, caught repeatedly on cell phone or media cameras, is becoming not only inexplicable but indefensible — especially when official brutality fuels the very issue that has brought out masses of protesters. How can officials argue law enforcement does not have systemic issues to deal with when they keep getting exposed in so many different agencies and places?

Experts know that weaponry employed by law enforcement, items like rubber or plastic bullets, fired against civilians can cause severe damage, despite claims that they are less harmful — than what? Lethal arms? Irritating airborne chemicals — yes, let’s just call them tear gas — also should be rare in law enforcement use, especially now as experts worry that they cause respiratory inflammation that can add complications with the pandemic raging. Why are military helicopters, emblazoned with red crosses signifying their peaceful medical use, buzzing in a combat intimidation technique American citizens exercising their constitutional rights?

A growing list of elite military leaders, along with rank-and-file commanders, have expressed doubt or outright condemned President Trump and his administration for seeking to “dominate” peaceful protesters with militaristic force. (The zealousness of the federal crackdown, of course, contrasts with the reluctance the administration has shown in dealing with Covid-19 concerns like testing, tracing, and medical supplies, especially personal protective equipment for health care workers.)

Muriel Bowser, the mayor of the District of Columbia, has criticized the administration for flooding the city with federal forces and called for their removal. What are the sources of these armed officers? They apparently are with the Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs and Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Bureau of Prisons, Homeland Security, Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco, and other agencies. These personnel have taken up duties in the District, too often without gear that identifies them or their official affiliation, and with questions about their training and capacity to handle policing responsibilities thrust on them.

The president and his men also summoned U.S. military forces, as well as National Guard troops from 11 states, including far spots like Tennessee, Florida, and Utah. The soldiers come with gear for warfare, though the Secretary of Defense eventually disarmed some (the guards) and sent back to base others (the active-duty military). Trump on Sunday said he would send the guard home. Again, military leaders, constitutional scholars, and religious leaders (Episcopal and Catholic) have denounced the militarization of the response to District protests and the president’s posing at religious sites, especially when government forces have had to clear peaceful demonstrators for his photo opportunities.

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on the innocent by excessive use of force by authorities. For too many Americans, but especially for people of color and those with less money, the U.S. health care system has become a gantlet of cruelty they must struggle through to access and afford safe, efficient, and excellent medical care. It has become an ordeal due to the skyrocketing cost, uncertainty, and complexity of therapies and prescription drugs, too many of which turn out to be dangerous drugs.

The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged the nation’s health, but it also has reminded Americans of the courage, sacrifice, and excellence shown every day by so many first responders and health care workers. At the same time, restlessness is climbing with the persistent bungling of the coronavirus response, combined with the harsh reality of coping with sky-high joblessness and a plummeting and uncertain economy. To see racism and injustice occur — with George Floyd and too many other African Americans dying in police hands, as well as with protesters set upon by authorities using excessive force — is infuriating and unacceptable. We have much work to do, at the ballot box and more, to defeat an infection, reset our economy and society, and ensure the post-pandemic America is not returned to a normality of the past but something better.  It cannot be racist or authoritarian. That future must be fair, just, free, open, and healthy for all.

Photo: West Coast hospital Tweet about its health care staff in #WhiteCoatsForBlackLives demonstration, kneeling and observing 8 minutes of silence to honor George Floyd
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