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Black Doctors Say Pandemic Reveals Enduring Racial Inequity Medicine Alone Cannot Fix


Here in the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected African Americans, and many Black medical professionals have experienced that on the frontlines. Reporter Daniella Cheslow of member station WAMU in Washington, D.C., spoke to several African American physicians about working through this pandemic amid ongoing protests for racial justice.

DANIELLA CHESLOW, BYLINE: Dr. William Strudwick was finishing a shift at D.C.'s Howard University Hospital when his wife texted. Their 19-year-old son wanted to go protest the killing of George Floyd.

WILLIAM STRUDWICK: It was in the evening, around 9 o'clock.

CHESLOW: He wrote back one word - no.

STRUDWICK: When I came home, he was not there. And so I called him, and we had the conversation (laughter) about him returning immediately.

CHESLOW: The teen came home. Dr. Strudwick said, after dark, he couldn't predict how protesters would act or how police would treat his son. Dr. Strudwick was born in D.C. in a hospital built to treat formerly enslaved people. Both of his parents were physicians, and growing up, he had few doubts about following their path.

STRUDWICK: The mayor was African American. All the doctors that I encountered were African American - lawyers, you know, politicians. You didn't see any obstacles in terms of what you could do.

CHESLOW: COVID-19 has hit close to home.

STRUDWICK: Pretty early on in this pandemic, I had a friend who suddenly passed away.

CHESLOW: He and Dr. Strudwick were the same age, and they raised their kids together. It seemed like they were both in the Washington Black middle class. But the friend died alone at home. His family blamed COVID-19. Dr. Strudwick wondered if his friend quietly struggled to afford health care.

STRUDWICK: He should have had access. He had that. He could have called me.

CHESLOW: That sense of duty and sometimes helplessness is familiar to Dr. Janice Blanchard at George Washington University Hospital. She says she called up an African American patient who tested positive for COVID, and she could hear a crowded household on the line.

JANICE BLANCHARD: But then you're, like, OK. I sound pretty silly. I'm telling them to socially isolate with seven people.

CHESLOW: In Washington, three-quarters of the people who have died from COVID-19 have been Black, and Dr. Blanchard saw the same trend in her hospital. Those patients often worked in service jobs that exposed them. They were frequently low-income. Dr. Blanchard recognized these challenges from her childhood on Chicago's South Side.

BLANCHARD: As Black and brown people, we're starting off behind, right? And now you have something like COVID that's just devastating communities.

CHESLOW: Dr. Marcee Wilder feels that same frustration. She works in D.C.'s only public hospital in the part of the city with the highest coronavirus death toll. Almost all her patients are African American.

MARCEE WILDER: I see myself in this community, and so watching them suffer has been pretty hard.

CHESLOW: Dr. Wilder remembers treating an elderly man who had COVID and high blood pressure. That's common among African Americans and common in the neighborhood where Dr. Wilder works. She met with his daughter and explained his chances were not good.

WILDER: And as I was leaving the room, I remember her asking - she said, if he's not going to make it, can I come see him? And I had to tell her no.

CHESLOW: In the last few weeks, all three doctors say COVID-19 cases have slowed down. Their work treating the pandemic has gotten easier. But Dr. Wilder says being African American weighs on her as she thinks about George Floyd's death and about who is worst affected by the coronavirus.

WILDER: We need allies. We need people in powerful places to see our humanity and decide that the time is now for action.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) George Floyd, George Floyd, say his name, George Floyd.

CHESLOW: On the first Saturday in June, Dr. Wilder filmed this video as she marched with her husband and two daughters. Dr. Blanchard also joined the protest, packing hand sanitizer and holding a Black Lives Matter sign above her head near the White House. And Dr. Strudwick was there with his wife. The three doctors say the pandemic revealed enduring racial inequity, and medicine alone cannot fix it.

For NPR News, I'm Daniella Cheslow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.