A Commentary By Dr. Sylvia Bartley
I consider myself to be a socially aware person with a passion and love for my community. I do my best to give back in a meaningful way. Giving back to my community is a core value I hold close to my heart. I’m mindful of the racial disparities, inequities and challenges that persistently plague black communities around the world. COVID-19 is no exception. Viruses don’t discriminate. The terrifying but not surprising data emerging state by state on the disproportionate number of black Americans being hospitalized and dying from COVID -19, however, implies otherwise. Poor socioeconomic status, pre-existing health conditions – like obesity, hypertension, and asthma – the lack of access to healthy foods, high-quality education and high-quality healthcare, are conditions that are prevalent in the black community. The very same conditions that classify people as a vulnerable high-risk group to COVID-19.
What can we do about it?
Numerous people have expressed their horrors about the data. Many have stepped up to do what they can to provide vital resources to the black community. I felt compelled to do the same, using my network and platform to provide information to the black community via black medical physicians and practitioners. Accurate information is critical to empower people to take the necessary steps to protect themselves, reducing the risk of contracting COVID-19.
I was proud of my ability to help. I had a sense of fulfillment, knowing I was doing my part. I felt I was doing the right thing until the unexpected moment I faced a situation that challenged and bothers me still today. A situation that tested my value system and commitment to my community.
Like most people in America, I’m sheltering in place and practicing social distancing. I’m working remotely, only going outside for a walk at the end of a long workday or to buy groceries from the store. When the weather is beautiful, I look forward to walking and soaking up the sun and the creative artwork that adds character to my cute neighborhood. One day when the weather was gorgeous, I decided to go for a walk around my neighborhood before walking to the grocery store. I didn’t carry a purse as the store uses Apple pay, and I didn’t want to take anything while I was walking. I’m masked up and practiced social distancing.
I tried to exchange pleasantries with the grocery store staff, but they could not hear me very well because of my face mask. As I write this, I feel like I’m priming you with my excuses! Anyway, I left the store with six small plastic bags of groceries and began walking slowing home, enjoying the sun before it set down for the day. In the far distance, I saw a blurry red outline on the sidewalk. As I got closer, I saw a black person, sitting in the middle of the sidewalk with a red blanket around their waist. I thought about social distancing. Do I cross the road to the other side of the street? I hesitated, knowing I just couldn’t cross the road. I wasn’t going to be that person.
As I got closer, I realized the person in the street was a man in his early sixties. He had grey, short hair that looked reasonably well kept. He had a nine o’clock shadow on his face. His head was bent down as he arranged his few belongings around him on the sidewalk. One of the items was a brown disposal drinking cup. I couldn’t make out the other items as they were tiny and out of my line of sight.
His legs were bent, with his bare feet planted squarely on the ground. He had a thin red blanket around his waist and the top of his legs, respectfully covering himself. He was wearing very short pants or no pants at all. He was engrossed in organizing his stuff on the street around him neatly. As I approached, I was wracking my brain; what do I do? Do I offer him money? No, I don’t have any on me. Do I offer him my groceries? I’m not sure he could do much with the eggs, ghee, plantain or any of the other food I brought. Do I say something? Yes, at least I can do that. I greeted him when I was about eight feet away. He didn’t look up. Maybe he didn’t hear me. I didn’t attempt to speak to him again. I focused on how I was going to pass him while keeping six feet away from him. Yet at the same time, I wanted to help him in some way. I merely did not know how, so I walked on by. I started to sweat slightly as the mask I was wearing was closely fitted on my face and the sun was shining brightly on my face and the man I was passing by. My breathing became shallow and my heart raced slightly. My conscience spoke up very loudly, ‘Where is your compassion and humanity?’ My heart sank; ‘What happened to your values?’ ‘Do they only apply at your convenience?’ I slowly walked on, feeling guilty, my privilege and frustrated. I hanged my head the rest of my walk home.
I was frustrated because I wanted to help but didn’t know how.
I was and still am frustrated because this man is who I’m referring to when I discuss the people most disadvantaged by the system and now most at risk for COVID-19. I am frustrated because the resources created to help him are not reaching him—the stimulus package funds for small businesses are being awarded to institutions like Harvard University who have a 40-billion-dollar endowment. I am frustrated because I judged Harvard University who refused, at the time, to return the 8.6 million dollars they received from the government. I question now if my principles are any better than theirs.
I am frustrated because the system, institutions and far too many people simply don’t care about the disenfranchised. More importantly, I am frustrated because I am part of the system. I am benefiting from the system at the expense of the disenfranchised man on the street.
The question remains, what can I do to help, and what can I do to change the system?
I can vote. During COVID-19, the role of the governor and mayors are critical in how the states and cities respond to keeping their constituents safe. I now live in Georgia, where the governor seems to value money over people’s lives. The Mayor of Atlanta is the opposite; she is fighting for people to stay home, to be safe and ultimately prevent hospitals from reaching capacity with COVID-19 patients. The importance of voting at local and state elections is abundantly clear to me during these unprecedented times. The Mayor of Las Vegas called for her constituents to be a control group as she justified the need to open casinos and nightclubs. Yes, it is essential to vote at local elections. And of course, in the Presidential election this November.
Voting is one thing, what else can I do right now to help?
CDC guidelines strongly recommend washing our hands for 20 seconds as one of the best ways to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19. I assume the man I pasted on the street has little access to clean water. I believe the same for the homeless, for people living in temporary housing, for people whose landlords cut off their water because they can’t pay their rent due to the shut-down. I assume the same for most of the 30 million-plus Americans, who have filed for unemployment suddenly. And the healthcare workers, the essential workers like the bus driver, the postman or woman, the delivery driver or the grocery store worker, who come face to face with the invisible virus by doing their job which requires them to interact a lot with people and touch multiple exposed surfaces in places where there is no place to wash their hands for 20 seconds. I recognize my privilege. I have access to clean water, ample resources to work from home and eat healthy food, which is vital to boost my immune system. Yet I am still at a loss regarding what I can do to help people like the man I walked by on the street. I didn’t see him as a threat. I simply did not know how to help him at that moment.
I arrived home. Despite washing my hands for twenty seconds, I felt my hands were dirty, not with COVID-19 but with guilt. I tried my hardest to wash away the guilt, but the question persists, what could I have done to help? I’ve given money to homeless people on the street numerous times before. To be honest, I don’t know if that solves the problem. After I washed my hands, I went online to donate to a food shelter with little confidence these resources would get to the man on the street.
What would you have done?
What are you doing to help those in need during COVID-19 and beyond? I ask because we all have a role to play in a system that maintains the status quo of keeping certain people down while elevating and supporting others. My ah-ha moment was realizing I am contributing to the man who was sitting on the sidewalk’s situation. Giving him money would have alleviated my guilt and made me feel better. The truth is, giving him money is an indication that I believe I am not part of a system that is keeping him down. By giving him money, I’m saying look at me I am a good person helping you out! The same feeling, I felt when I was traveling in the continent, where I had to walk past women with tiny babies living on the street. I felt like I was doing something good by giving them money. I quickly ran out of money because there were too many people begging on the street. And then I felt awful, useless and helpless! These experiences drive me to think deep and more strategically about how to help. I don’t have the answer yet, but one thing is clear. I contribute to the condition of my community that I am so disturbed by. And hence my pledge from here on out is to do better in a way that everyone can do better.
Dr. Sylvia Bartley a Senior Global Director for the Medtronic Foundation. Her book Turning the Tide: Neuroscience, Spirituality and My Path Toward Emotional Health” outlines the links between our brains and our souls while inspiring readers to change the world with that knowledge.