The “big and bad” United States is seeing its world dominance recede. We are being vanquished both by a virus and by the ignorance of the “Commander in Chief.” We now know that there are not enough tests to detect the coronavirus, nor enough ventilators to treat all of those who are ill. Medical professionals are talking openly about the choices they will make and the fact that some people will be judged more likely to survive than others.
Through which lens will these medical professionals decide who gets a ventilator? Will age be the only lens, advantaging a 30-year-old over an 80-year-old? Will there be other filters? Will a man with children get preference over a single woman? An author over a homeless person? A white person over a person of color? Medical professionals are being asked to choose and to judge. How will their conscious or unconscious bias play a role in their judgments?
The National Academy of Medicine describes itself as “an independent, nonprofit organization that works outside of government to provide unbiased and authoritative advice to decision-makers and the public” On its website, it acknowledges “evidence of racial and ethnic disparities in health care.” Will this evidence influence the distribution of ventilators?
People will need these ventilators to breathe. They may need them for weeks, not days. Some will survive, and some won’t. The survival rate is a function of the bizarre avoidance our so-called leaders make decisions about this pandemic. But who will be saved? An innocent infant or the despot who lives in the house that enslaved people built?
Dr. Dorothy Irene Height was 98 when she died in 2010. She was productive until her final days. In her own words, she was “dressed and in her right mind” until the end. Would the doctor choosing who got a ventilator see the history contained in that precious black body? Or would he make choices based on stereotypes? I know that by Black 92-year-old mama, disabled by a stroke, still gives her children strength and love, smiles, and sharp reprimands (yes, the lady hit me when I used profanity in her presence. Whose life would I trade that for?)
We must not forget the many ways that Black bodies were used for medical experiments, from the use of Black women’s genitalia to develop gynecology through the Tuskegee syphilis studies that lasted from 1932 through 1972. Black people’s lives have too often been white people’s experiments. It is not paranoid, but merely cautious, to wonder who will get the ventilators, and whose needs will be sidelined. Now the words “Black Lives Matter” take on a more pointed meaning.
This coronavirus illustrates our nation’s faultlines by class race and gender. The coronavirus also refutes the notion of our nation’s exceptionalism. The United States just ain’t all that, despite our “greatest” rhetoric. We are stumbling compared to other countries – Italy, China, Spain – who have attempted, generously, to show us the way forward.
One of the populations I’ve heard very little about is incarcerated people. How do you socially distance when you are confined, with another person, in a small cell? Given our collective disdain for the incarcerated, will an incarcerated person with coronavirus have a chance?
Incarcerated people aren’t the only people at risk. All marginalized people are, in one way or another, at risk. Ventilators cost between $25,000 and $50,000 and even more when there is competition to obtain them. Will hospitals with limited resources be able to obtain ventilators? Those who are income-challenged are more likely to go to hospitals that are under-resourced. Lower-income people are at greater risk and have less access to quality health care.
The coronavirus will hit princes and paupers, members of Congress and members of the clergy, computer whizzes and those who don’t have computers. We may all be at risk from the coronavirus, but class, race, and gender will likely determine who has the best chance at recovery. We can’t call ourselves “great” unless we are fair. Will everyone have a chance to recover from this virus?