Naa Asheley Ashitey   |   7/ 22/ 2022   |   Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Two Years of COVID and Counting, Medicine Still Does Not Value Black Lives

Unsplash; City of Chicago/The Xylom illustration

It was a Wednesday night in March 2020.


I was one of the few people left in my dorm at the University of Chicago (UChicago) and I had put the last of my clothes in my suitcase. I sat in my house lounge, now completely empty and not full of people watching movies or playing Catan or trying to finish a general chemistry problem set. It was an uncomfortable silence as I sat in my house lounge for the last time in my third year of college, and my own hopeful naivety that it would be possible for me to return to this place I called home in the fall for my final year of college. But I knew that wasn’t going to be the case and my interaction with my own mother hours prior would confirm such.


Naa (left) poses with her mother. (Courtesy of Naa Asheley Ashitey)

Earlier that day, my mother and my aunt had come to help take some of my bedding and other non-clothing items home. It was the first time I had seen my mom in a couple of weeks, despite being a 23-minute walk from my Woodlawn apartment but that’s just the quarter system life. I walked around my panicked classmates, some who were rushing to catch their Ubers to O’Hare and some that were crying and holding onto their friends and partners they’d have to say goodbye to much earlier than any of us expected this academic year and went to open the door for my mom. At the moment and for the hour and a half we spent—well I spent—carrying boxes and extra suitcases to put in my aunt’s trunk, I didn’t think much of my mother and I’s interactions. We were in such a rush to finish packing up my things so she could go back home to try to get an extra two hours of sleep before heading to work. It wasn’t until I was sitting on that green chair in my house lounge and the chilling breeze of silence that covered my body that made me realize the absence of warmth I’d usually get from my mom when we saw each other. She didn’t give me a hug or a kiss on the cheek like she normally does when she sees my “designer” eye bags from the late nights I’ve had studying. There was little to no small talk and when I had to take a break to catch my breath, we were standing 6 feet apart from each other.

So, my mother could not give her own daughter a hug or a kiss and apart from the busy academic schedule that locked me in my bedroom despite a global pandemic, we would barely speak to each other.

My mother was an essential worker and like many other people who were classified as essential at that time, she did not have the privilege to “work from home.” Just as she’s done for the past 15 years, she’d take a two-hour public transit ride from our house on the south side of Chicago to her hospital on the northside where, as a housekeeper, she would be responsible for cleaning up the offices of the hospital administration that could embrace the work-from-home lifestyle and silently counted the days before the COVID-19 pandemic would blow up to a point where she’d have to work in the ER and then further increase the risk of getting COVID. So, my mother could not give her own daughter a hug or a kiss and apart from the busy academic schedule that locked me in my bedroom despite a global pandemic, we would barely speak to each other.


She was worried that she would give me COVID.


My mom did not get her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine until mid-January in 2021 and only then, nearly one year later, did she feel comfortable enough to embrace me, though still not as long as we’d usually hug since I wouldn’t be fully vaccinated for another 5 months.

Every day my mother left the house, I was worried that she would get COVID and due to some of the pre-existing conditions my mother has, it would kill her. And if COVID-19 wasn’t already a horrible risk and death sentence for my then-73-year-old dad who was trapped in Ghana due to travel bans and flight cancellations, the death of my mother would kill him and I’d be left without parents in my last year and a half of my college career.


Every day my mother left the house, I was worried that she would get COVID and due to some of the pre-existing conditions my mother has, it would kill her.

The first year of the pandemic was one of the worst years of my life because of this fear I had about losing my parents. Every morning I’d check the New York Times COVID-19 tracker and see the number of cases and deaths go up. I kept checking local news and information put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and by April 2020, when it was revealed that Black people were catching COVID-19 and dying at a higher rate than the average American at the time, likely due to the disproportionate amount of Black people who were essential workers, my heart broke. When I finally had a little bit of time to myself, I’d either run a hot bath or shower, think about the news and my mother, and the tears of frustration and fear would add to the water that was covering my body.



Yet, during that time between April and June 2020, while I’m in my shower or bedroom or living room thinking about my mother, I’d scroll through my Instagram and see people I know still going out, traveling, and even hosting parties. On my Twitter feed, I saw videos of lockdown protests with predominantly white people holding up signs of “my body, my choice”, displaying xenophobic language then-president Donald Trump and, sad to say, other scientists and physicians I’d seen on social media, used to describe COVID-19. They gave me the impression that because COVID-19 was more likely to kill Black people, more likely to kill people like my mother, the mitigations and important public health precautions from wearing masks to lockdowns no longer had value because the people dying from COVID-19 were frankly not white.




I won’t recap May and June of 2020 in more detail. Still, it is extremely important to observe major health institutions recognizing and declaring “Racism is a Public Health Crisis.” Doctors, scientists, and schools of higher education acknowledged and recognized how anti-Black racism has been the framework for medicine (i.e. the field of gynecology as a very striking example of this) and that systemic change in medical or graduate admissions and residency programs needed to occur, whether by more inclusive health education that teaches all skin types and not just white skin, increasing Black representation in science or directly addressing the systemic harm and mistrust the Black community rightfully has towards medicine and making strides to repair this very broken relationship. With COVID-19 amplifying many of these systemic issues, infographics shared on social media and virtual town halls from public health officials were pleas to individuals in the United States to follow COVID-19 guidelines of staying home, wearing a mask, and staying six feet apart. We declared these mitigations as important and essential, not only because we had scientific evidence about the health benefits of these policies, but to also reduce COVID’s unequal burden on Black folks and other marginalized communities. Even if this wasn’t a formal policy stance, it cannot be denied that following CDC guidelines back in 2020 would save Black lives.


Now, in July 2022, the variants of COVID-19 that have since formed from our original “alpha” strain have continued to run through the US, with new cases and deaths continuing every single day. All the public health precautions physicians and public health officials had yelled at people on the street and on Twitter for almost two years for people to follow, the declaration that racism is a public health crisis and the need to tackle the health disparities that COVID has worsened for marginalized communities, all of these things: gone.



We’ve dropped mask mandates across public transit, stores, and most indoor spaces. Many leaders, regardless of public health experience, have simply laid down their bully pulpits and policy tools while turning a blind eye to the most vulnerable because “we need to get back to living our lives.”


Anti-Black racism shows up in many ways in medicine and science. Whether that is the lack of Black representation in science, the extremely inaccurate belief that “Black people don’t feel as much pain and don’t need many medications”, or the emotional and physical tolls of fighting for inclusion, equity, and accessibility for Black patients while also fighting to belong in science. But our treatment of COVID-19 in the past couple of months and the complete abandonment of the extremely essential precautions of wearing masks and avoiding high-risk activities, and the promotion of this abandonment by healthcare professionals is not only unsound science, it reeks of anti-Black racism.


But when we throw up the white flag with our approach to COVID, we are simply saying that, yes, racism is a public health crisis, but we don’t care.

Following my graduation from UChicago, I moved to the Bay Area after being selected to the inaugural cohort of UC San Francisco’s PROPEL Post-Baccalaureate Program. Despite the amazing scientific research and advocacy opportunities I’ve been a part of since coming to UCSF, I often think about how trainees from historically underrepresented backgrounds like myself would receive mentorship and research training for graduate and medical school, in a major city where a six-figure salary is defined by the federal government as “low-income”, and a Black population of less than 6%, with this number continuing to shrink.


When I ride the Muni to work or I go on a quick grocery run and I see that for the most part, Black folks and many non-white persons of color are still wearing masks, but many white people are not, I get this twinge in my stomach. Not simply because I’m thinking “why would you even risk getting COVID?” but it inherently feels like people are saying “I do not care if my lack of care for others may kill them.” Yet, the reason why people are not wearing masks is that our public health leaders and institutions are telling people that it is okay to just look out for themselves but not for one another.


COVID-19 did not target Black people. The systemic inequalities and racism that define this country caused COVID-19 to target Black people. Racism is absolutely a public health crisis. But when we throw up the white flag with our approach to COVID, we are simply saying that, yes, racism is a public health crisis, but we don’t care.


We don’t care about Black lives, and the anti-Black racism that has defined medicine and science for so long, can and will continue; and we can live with that.


I guess we really did go back to normal.


 

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Naa Asheley Ashitey

From Chicago, Naa Asheley Afua Adowaa Ashitey graduated with a B.A. in Creative Writing with Honors and a minor in Biological Sciences from the University of Chicago. She is now a PROPEL Post-Bacc Scholar and ImmunoX ImmunoDiverse Fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, working on multiple projects related to cancer immunotherapy. In addition to her passion for pursuing a career as a physician-scientist, she hopes to continue to be involved in advocacy work that centers on making STEM more accessible for Underrepresented Minority Students. She hopes to publish short stories and poetry collections relating to immunology, race, sexuality, and the complexity of being a first-generation, low-income daughter of immigrants to the United States.