Not many were prescient enough to expect 2020 to be the year it is. There are those gifted among us who have been warning of a pandemic flu event for many years, and some who have been crying out about social injustice for my entire lifetime. But I don’t know anyone who would have predicted that we would experience a pandemic and such a profound moment of truth about racial injustice within the space of a few months. Two black swan events that will roil our social fabric for years.
Black swan events are characterized by their extreme rarity, severe impact, and the widespread insistence they were obvious in hindsight. Regardless of whether you buy into the concept of black swan events, we are all dealing with unexpected changes to our day to day lives.
Racial injustice has been with us for so long that it hardly qualifies as a black swan event—indeed, there is a long list of atrocities that could tip us over—yet, the video of George Floyd dying in plain sight for all to see did serve as a tipping point for extreme response.
The other day I was going through some files looking for my health care directive. Yes, this in itself speaks to our new reality. I, like many, hadn’t reviewed my directive for years, but was spurred on to do so in a time of possible isolation from loved ones should I need to be hospitalized. The emotional pain experienced for hospitalized patients and their families right now is hard to process, My heart goes out to all affected by this harsh reality.
Among the files was a four-page document from the American Red Cross entitled “How to Prepare for a Pandemic Flu Event.” In my handwriting on the upper-right corner— was the date 4/05. I’m guessing it was used as an exercise for the routine emergency preparedness that we in health care do constantly to prepare for threats. It’s what public health is all about.
That file could have been one among many of other public health files that I once had that tracked efforts to end homelessness in Minneapolis, studied the social determinants of health for a Governor’s Task Force, and one that carried the message that health insurance should be affordable and equitable in order to assure access for all to optimize public health.
It has been knowable for a long time. Poverty, inadequate housing, education and economic opportunity all align with poorer health outcomes. Why should this surprise us now? The disparities along racial identity have been knowable for a long time. Why should this surprise us now?
The combination of a pandemic which shows us that African Americans are at higher risk for COVID 19 and the dishonorable death of George Floyd on video for all of the world to see showcased the intersection of the injustice we have been living with for far too long.
I, for one, am glad we are agitated out of business as usual. In truth, I believe it will be the economic downturn that moves us to action, as opposed to either the pandemic or the death of George Floyd on their own. Clearly, this is our moment to take these two black swan events and go somewhere better. It’s high time.
Time for a reboot—not just the same operating system. We need to re-tool smarter, kinder, and design opportunity for everyone. We need to go back to our values, and build around them. It’s inspiring to see the energy and participation in the national conversation about racial injustice. Added to the new awareness that our world is smaller than we think is the reality that we are all participants in care of our global health as citizens of the Earth; this is a time we should heed the message from the universe to reboot, re-energize and thrive.
This is hard work and will take time. But, we have the moment. Let’s not waste it.