So many of us are feeling deep sadness and frustration as our country and our city show how hard it is to be vital and inclusive. Processing this series of unthinkable, violent acts rooted in racism has been so difficult.
In my multicultural family, my teenage boys have been riveted to CNN, with good questions about why and whether it could be them — an extension of many conversations on the racism they see in their daily lives. My 17-year-old fears the police and lets me know that he understands how important it is to leave his hands on the steering wheel when stopped. My 15-year-old and his wonderfully diverse group of friends has been called out on Nextdoor for looking suspicious as they ride their bikes in the neighborhood. They have been accused of stealing more than once. Nonviolent reactions, but symptomatic. As a white kid, I did not experience these fears and these reactions.
We have also seen the COVID-19 outbreak demonstrate how deeply rooted racial and ethnic inequities run. More than 75% of hospital admissions in Austin last week were of Latinx people, and the case fatality rate among Black individuals is higher than for others. We have watched as the inequities have gotten worse around us, resulting in so much illness and death, delivered through institutional racism that is tied to poverty and differential work protections. Once the outbreak passes, the economic pressures on those already struggling will be even greater, and health will ultimately be impacted as inequities further deepen.
I personally find further inaction intolerable, and allyship is only table stakes. While we are small against generations of racism, we can certainly assure that our own culture cares for each of us and reaches out to the larger community to address the intersection of race, vulnerability and health — living up to the words vital and inclusive. While it is difficult when COVID-19 separates us, let’s come together and take care of each other.
Beyond that, let’s move to action. Let’s look for demonstrations of how we can address the needs of the vulnerable around us, even before we see an impact in our clinics and hospitals.
As for our institution: I am bringing our medical school leaders together this week to begin to plot a course. It must start with education, not just of our students, but of ourselves and of each other. It must also look at the foundations in our own policies that inadequately address inequities in our practices. We must hold ourselves accountable to a higher standard through feedback and data. We must also anticipate further collapse of our safety-net health system and exacerbation of inequities wrought by COVID-19 — and prepare to prevent more injustice and more death.
We are strong together and in our own arena — of health — we can bring the creativity, leadership, passion and systems thinking necessary to create the new models we desperately need.
This is hard work, for me and for all of us, but we were created by our community to take on the great challenges.
Clay Johnston is dean of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin.