My mom wants to hear my opinion on public transportation. Can she take the subway to see her dentist this week, or should she take a cab? I say to her, “Take a cab if you can afford it, and if you take the subway try getting on a less crowded car. Practice social distancing, if possible.”
Mom asks me because I’m her medical student in the family. The truth is, I don’t have any more information to offer than what’s already found on the CDC’s website. I don’t have much to add, really, unless…
Perhaps what I can offer, as a member of the medical profession, is comfort. Social support during a time of social isolation. Communication and community in the face of quarantine.
I am a student of Global Health. In addition to our traditional medical curriculum, we learn about the impact of social disparities on health and wellness. So when I tell mom to take a cab if she can afford it, I wonder about the people who cannot. When the CDC recommends social distancing, I wonder about the people who live in crowded quarters. When we talk about the distribution of care and resources, I think about the those who cannot afford healthcare.
There is a harsh reality that I have come to know up close as a medical student, and it is not about chronic illness, heart disease or cancer. It is not even about death. The most difficult reality I have had to come to terms with is that disease disproportionately affects the poor. To me, one of the most shocking and cognitively dissonant ironies within the medical field is that those who require treatment most often are at the disadvantaged end of our dangerously unbalanced social spectrum.
In the face of COVID-19, I think about the necessity of social distancing, and then I wonder about the social closeness that we need right now, the sharing of resources, the changes in policy and healthcare, I think about the people in Wuhan and compare their circumstances to the people in the United States. And then I think about social inequality within the United States.
This disease goes beyond a single stranded positive sense RNA virus within a majestic crown capsule. This disease goes beyond pneumonia and respiratory distress syndrome. This pandemic will tell a story about who we were as a society in the times of COVID-19. Did we offer comfort or distance? Did we allow for racism and social inequality to get the better of us? Did we share our resources and care for the less fortunate?
Mom, it is true that even as your daughter in medicine, I don’t have much more information to offer than the CDC already has. Do take a cab if you can. But on your way, as you look out the window, please, will you tell me about the people you see sitting on the street?
Brooklyn, New York