Columns for The Lufkin News

Pandemics and Personal Responsibility

Posted Jul 11, 2020 by Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

We have been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic for many months now. What an emotional roller coaster ride it has been. Early thoughts of “flattening the curve” have not panned out in Texas. In Angelina County, there has been a steady rise in cases since early April.[1] From a healthcare standpoint, much has been written of the way the virus – as if it had a mind of its own – discriminates against minority populations. Of course, the virus itself is colorblind. However, many of the social and economic factors that affect health are not.

The Economist, in a column titled Black America in peril[2], quotes WEB DuBois, an African American sociologist, who said that the “most difficult social problem in the matter of Negro health” was that so few white Americans were bothered by it. He wrote that in 1899. This “indifference” to human suffering continues today and is perpetuated by a broken procedure-oriented, insurance-driven system of healthcare that is vastly too expensive for everyone, not just those without insurance. The answer is not so simplistic as providing insurance coverage for everyone (although expanding Medicaid coverage in Texas would have significant positive health and economic benefits for the state).[3]

In the United States, these health inequities extend beyond racial classification. The attainment and maintenance of health is a multifactorial and heavily socioeconomic phenomenon.[4] Enter COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Once again, we see higher death rates in vulnerable populations. In the middle of a pandemic, we are not going to solve systemic inequities in healthcare.

But that does not mean we are helpless.

Ironically, the most effective prevention intervention – wearing masks – has become one of the most political, with some rights-obsessed conservatives (who presumably wear seatbelts in their cars) selfishly preferring to risk harming others rather than donning a minimally irritating face covering. Why is it that those shouting “personal rights and responsibility” from the rooftops are the ones rejecting the singularly individual action that can save lives?

In a recent interview, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and former head of the Human Genome Project (and, incidentally, a committed Christian, which should be of some comfort to those who are inclined to conflate religious and political viewpoints), was asked, “As someone who is both an acclaimed scientist and a public Christian, what’s your perspective on the pandemic as a cultural issue?” His reply is both compassionate and pragmatic. “Your chance of spreading the coronavirus to a vulnerable person has nothing to do with what culture you come from or what political party you belong to. Your responsibility is to try to prevent that from happening to vulnerable people around you. But our country’s polarization is so extreme that it even seems to extend into a place like this — where it absolutely doesn’t belong. That is really troubling because it’s putting people at risk who shouldn’t be.”[5]

In times of great social and political upheaval, we can become despondent and feel there is nothing we as individuals can do to fix anything. (Frankly, we put too much hope in elections.) It just so happens that in the middle of this coronavirus pandemic it is exactly individual action that is going to make all the difference. Whatever your personal ethical or religious motivation, we can all follow the Golden Rule. We can follow the command of Jesus – “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[6] – who undoubtedly would be wearing a mask right now. Go and do likewise. Do it for the least of these. Wear your masks. Save lives.

[1] https://lufkindailynews.com/coronavirus/article_7c89bec8-bbe3-11ea-9c44-ff688bafa639.html

[2] https://www.economist.com/united-states/2020/05/28/the-vulnerability-of-african-americans-to-the-coronavirus-is-a-national-emergency

[3] https://www.perrymangroup.com/publications/report/economic-benefits-of-expanding-health-insurance-coverage-in-texas/

[4] https://www.countyhealthrankings.org/what-is-health

[5] https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/07/anthony-faucis-boss-on-why-things-could-be-much-better-soon.html

[6] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+22%3A39&version=NIV

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