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Left to Tell!

July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. I regularly write about mental health and its impact on people of color. Because of COVID-19, additional mental-health resources are available. Next month, I’ll will make sure to include information about some of these resources. However, this month, the as the virus outbreaks grow the greatest threat to our mental health is the COVID-19 crisis. Ever since I read Left to Tell, Immaculée Ilibagiza’s book about Rwanda’s genocide, I have wondered “How can genocides happen?” I believe in the fundamental goodness of humanity and do not understand how people can watch their neighbors, friends, and loved ones be killed. How could anyone willingly contribute to the deaths of those they love? Myths and falsehoods abound about COVID. View with skepticism anything that encourages risky behavior that could harm you or a loved one harm. If you are concerned about police violence, community violence; or about issues of justice and equity be concerned about COVID-19 too. We can do something about this. We can save lives. However, if we do not act in ways that are aligned with our own insights and moral compasses, our communities will be scarred.

We have lost 130,000 people in a little over four months. Let that number settle in. We are amid a growing pandemic; around 700 people or more are dying each day in the United States. The death rate, masks the real damage rarely does the news mention the permanent damage to victims’ hearts, lungs, and other organs or the long-term health challenges that can result from merely contracting the disease—even among those who are asymptomatic. Sometimes those who have been on ventilators will have to relearn how to walk, speak, and take care of themselves if they recover. This is not the flu. People affected by COVID-19 have children, neighbors, families, and businesses. They love and are loved. They are real people, and far too many are people of color- conservatively, 30–40% of those who contract the disease- or people who have been affected by structural inequities. Right now, approximately 2,500,000 people in the US have contracted COVID-19; if the numbers are correct, then 750,000 of those cases were and are people of color. If you believe that black lives matter, then you have to be concerned about COVID-19. Those most affected are people who cannot work from home. They are frontline workers.

The public health rules—stay home, wear a mask, and wash your hands—are based on simple math: the fewer people who contract it, the fewer people who spread it, resulting in fewer people getting sick or dying. Doing these things are expressions of care: you are looking out for those who are vulnerable. By all accounts, coronavirus is highly contagious, and one person can easily spread it to many others. One person could spread it to 10 others. It can grow exponentially injuring the most vulnerable: people with asthma, COPD, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, or chronic stress. That’s a lot of us!

I fear, the powers that be, have decided that 150,000 or more deaths and 2,500,000 sick people is acceptable. These ‘powers’ tell you that you should not deny yourself restaurants, bars, or ‘normal’ lives. For freedom they say, we ignore the suffering of others if it does not directly impact our families. I have seen frequent references to the boiling-frog metaphor: turning up the temperature slowly on a frog-filled pot of water lets you kill the frogs inside before they know what is happening. In this way, we become okay with 100,000 deaths now; 300,000 by the fall; 500,000 by Christmas; and so on. I hope that it’s just a coincidence, but the protest over the shelter-in-place orders and the change in the media narrative seem to coincide with the stories about the virus’s disproportionate effect on people of color and low-wage essential workers. If we are not vigilant, we might end up telling ourselves that these are necessary sacrifices; we might normalize these losses, making is complicit in our victimization.

So, be careful. Keep your eyes and ears open when you find yourself echoing the news, ignoring public health advice, or—even worse—disregarding reports of human losses. Act in a way that shows you care.

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