Opinion bannerCOVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black people.

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Arjun Arya is a postgraduate year one, or PGY1, in emergency medicine at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He’s passionate about diversity, anti-racism, and leadership.

He writes that while a virus doesn’t discriminate, it’s operating in a world that does — and Black people have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

While he anticipates treating protesters for COVID-19, he stands in solidarity with them.

He says that racism is always a greater threat than a virus.

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“I can’t breathe” were the last words of George Floyd.

In emergency departments throughout America, they are the same last words of many other Black people, who too are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. These injustices share the same vocabulary because they share the same underlying cause: racism.

In the healthcare world, whether we look at life expectancy overall or mortality from cancer, heart disease, diabetes, COVID-19, or nearly any other health condition, one thing becomes painfully evident: America — and Black America in particular — is suffering from the same repeated insults of injustice.

Arjun Arya.

Arjun Arya

As an emergency-medicine doctor, I find myself gifted with a rare vantage point at the crossroads of healthcare and humanity. A chance to work in a department that, within its walls of dizzying activity, reflects the world outside the hospital — one in the throes of a virus that does not discriminate.

A virus that does not discriminate but nevertheless operates in a world that does.

A world with unequal access to sanitation, inequitable housing practices, and extreme wealth gaps that force our most vulnerable to shelter together when they cannot make rent.

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A nondiscriminatory virus made to be unjust because of the world it operates in is an analogy for health disparities as a whole. Biology that is the same manifesting unjustly — not because of the biology itself, but because of the world in which that biology resides.

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Now, with millions of Americans marching in protest of Black injustice during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely inevitable that in a few short weeks I will again hear repeated cries in the emergency department of “I can’t breathe” as COVID-19 once again affects Black communities disproportionately.

And yet, as a Brown man with relative privilege, I stand with the protesters in absolute solidarity. I must, because the virus is just a problem, not the problem.

Racism — unless put in the spotlight, unless called out, rectified, and abolished — will always be a greater threat to justice than a virus. A post-virus America would nevertheless remain sick.

Yes, wear a mask. Yes, wash your hands. Yes, do your best to maintain distance. And yes, absolutely yes, join your allies to abolish injustice. 

We all breathe the same air, but some of us breathe more freely.

Arjun Arya is a PGY1 in emergency medicine at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is passionate about diversity, anti-racism, and leadership. In his free time he likes to read, bother his girlfriend, and eat cookies.

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