Philip S. Barie, M.D., M.B.A., Master C.C.M., F.I.D.S.A., F.A.C.S.
Professor of Surgery
Professor of Public Health in Medicine
Weill Cornell Medicine
New York, NY
“By their disturbing and upsetting effects, epidemics, like wars, force the display of strengths and weaknesses in the political order of the infested societies.” Bradley M. Wertheim, M.D., quoting the medical historian G.L. Wackers .
Note: force is absolutely the wrong word in these times. I disavow it. Unmask might be a better choice, or expose. Choose for yourself, or select another. I present the quotation in its entirety for illumination. The metaphors are intended to enhance the discussion; I hope they do not detract. Avoidance and obfuscation are certainly not the aim.
The gruesome graphics envelop us, and make us heartsick. They sear the soul. Images of George Floyd in Minneapolis, crushed to death in the street under the knee of an arresting officer for the transgression of passing a counterfeit $20. Rayshard Brooks, gunned down by police in the parking lot of an Atlanta fast-food restaurant (that was torched by arson subsequently), after a traffic stop gone horribly wrong. Ahmaud Arbery, hunted, cornered, and shot dead on a quiet residential street in Brunswick, Georgia while jogging. Three trenchant examples of recent memory, but there are more, and innumerable examples in the past.
In the midst of the pandemic, some see warfare; there is conflict in the streets, in the media, in the halls of government, and in the minds of many. Others see infestation. All see devastation. There certainly is privation. The pandemic has landed especially hard upon minority communities and those that are at economic disadvantage (often, one and the same), exposing long-standing grief and misery, disparities in wellness, access to health care, and the ability to survive infectious disease. Indeed we are infested, not just by a pathogen in our midst, but by hatred, animus, and discrimination so pervasive that it has persisted for centuries. It is beyond time for injustice to end. Silence is deafening, we must give voice. Inaction is perpetuating, we must take action.
The tragic, untimely deaths of Arbery, Brooks, Floyd, and others have torn open gaping, festering wounds that have never healed. Communities have been devastated by grief and fear and violence, and economic damage and deprivation. There is widespread outrage. It is long past time to bind these wounds. Be mindful and proactive. We can use the urgency of the pandemic to build equitable systems that increase the long-term resilience of minority communities, and institutions.
“Actually, it does not matter what is the source of the patient’s gasping. You simply have to bring his breathing back in order.” Bradley M. Wertheim, M.D., quoting, the Danish physician Bjork Ibsen, M.D. 
Note: simply is not a word I would choose either.
I do not presume to speak for the oppressed, or to pretend that I understand what they have endured or how they have persevered. Now is the time to listen, and learn, and commit to meaningful change for the better. Introspection can be difficult but now is the time. Ask the difficult questions of yourself. The answers are evident. Racism, indeed discrimination in all forms, must be put to an end through transformational change.
- Wertheim BM. How a polio outbreak in Copenhagen led to the invention of the ventilator. Smithsonian Magazine 2020 Jun 10. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/how-polio-outbreak-copenhagen-led-to-invention-ventilator-180975045/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20200610-daily-responsive&spMailingID=42702704&spUserID=MTAzNDQ3NDI2MTM1MAS2&spJobID=1780896401&spReportId=MTc4MDg5NjQwMQS2.