I am worried. Every day for over a month, I saw tens of thousands of black people around the country marching in protest of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others. They marched, and continue to march, in protest of police brutality and systemic racism that has thoroughly infiltrated law enforcement. They marched for change. Every day, I saw black people march shoulder to shoulder with their white counterparts and I worry. I worry not just because the police are arresting them, showering them with tear gas, or in my city, tasing them and dragging them out of cars. I worry because I am black, I am a doctor, and most of my patients with COVID-19 look like me. In fact, most patients with COVID-19 all over the country look like me. They are overwhelmingly black, Latino, and Native American.
And while George Floyd died because a grown man put his knee—and the full weight of his body—on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, a full autopsy revealed that Floyd was also positive for the novel coronavirus. Moreover, he seems to have had the very kinds of underlying health issues—heart disease and high blood pressure—that predispose patients with COVID-19 toward worse outcomes.
That, and he was black.
As result of the high prevalence of hypertension and diabetes within the black community, the effects of coronavirus on those who are infected become amplified. The finding that Floyd had coronavirus in his system sent a chill down my spine. Was he marked for death? If Derek Chauvin hadn’t killed him, would the coronavirus have sealed his fate instead? Whom else in his community would he have spread the virus to? How will those individuals fare if they develop COVID-19?
The posthumous diagnosis was a visceral reminder of what it means to be Black in America right now, to be caught in the crosshairs of a global pandemic that targets us disproportionately, as well as a centuries-long epidemic of police brutality that has gone on since the advent of slave patrols four 400 years ago.
The two phenomena have come together in one person, George Floyd. And, now, they are in the streets of Atlanta and seemingly every city in America: people marching for reforms to the way this country polices its citizens of color while a pandemic continues to rage. America may have flattened the curve, but that was before these mass protests, where social distancing has been all but impossible. And if the physical proximity of protesters wasn’t concerning enough, there are reports of law enforcement confiscating whole shipments of masks ordered for Black Lives Matter protestors and of officers destroying medical stations for weary and unprotected demonstrators. And so I worry. Not just that the coronavirus is making a roaring comeback in part because of all these people gathered so close together, but that it will kill the very people who are demanding society’s acknowledgement that their lives matter: Black people. I worry because our lives matter, yet they feel more fragile than ever. In New York City, coronavirus was found to be killing black and Latino patients at twice the rate of white patients. In Louisiana, a report found, 70% of those who have died from COVID-19 were black. In Washington, DC, where they make up 46% of the population, Black people accounted for 75% of COVID-19 deaths. In my hospital, in Atlanta, I don’t have the data at my fingertips, but I see it with my eyes. I see men and women who look like me disproportionately infected and dying from this disease. While the protestors march downtown, my hospital is still trying to pull coronavirus patients back from the brink of death. In room one, there is a 56-year-old African-American woman with high blood pressure, diabetes, and kidney disease. Now, her lungs are failing due to COVID-19. One day, her heart stopped, her breathing ceased—a code blue. She nearly became a statistic, but we got her back.
In room two, a 75-year-old African-American man with diabetes, heart disease, and a history of multiple strokes. He needed to be placed on a ventilator within hours of coming to the hospital. He too has COVID-19.
In room three is Mr. M, a 55-year-old African-American man with uncontrolled HIV, emphysema, and congestive heart failure. He too was found to have COVID-19. Despite our most aggressive therapy, his life is slipping from our grasp. I know he looks like me but not from his face, which I haven’t seen in days. I know he is a black man from the small slivers of dark skin I can see. He is strapped to a bed that will periodically rotate him in order to get more oxygen to different parts of his lungs. This is a last-ditch effort, though I doubt he will survive.
I want to tell the protesters, especially those who are black, to be careful—to be careful because they are at risk even if they are healthy now, just because of their skin color. I want to tell them to be careful because they have parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles at home, and that, after decades of systemic economic inequality and disparities in access to healthcare, they are statistically far more susceptible to the coronavirus than their white allies who march with them. It is a particularly cruel irony when the people who need their voices heard the most, those of us who have been silenced and suppressed the most, are those who will be most likely to get infected by partaking in mass demonstrations.
I wish I could tell them to stay home and stay safe, but how can I tell them not to march when we need to more than ever? How can I tell them to stop when their protests have led to change? How can I tell them that amplifying their voices also means exposing themselves to this other silent killer, which will statistically affect them more than their white brothers and sisters at their side? How can we not protest when we see that everyone in our community risks becoming another George Floyd? How do you decide which is worse: staring down the barrel of a police officer’s gun, or being attached to a ventilator and struggling for life as the virus ravages your body?
When I think about the video that showed the gruesome murder of George Floyd to the world, his face is often replaced by the faces I see in the hospital. Black and brown faces on which the novel coronavirus has a breathless stranglehold. My great fear is that as the protests go on, that stranglehold grows tighter and tighter and grips more and more necks that all too soon go breathless. A virus is killing my people; can I even tell them?