“Covid-19 was initially hailed as the great equalizer…but it arrived in America and immediately became American: classist, capitalist, complacent.” Teju Cole, “We can’t comprehend this much sorrow.” New York Times, May 24, 2020
I have had the opportunity to deeply listen and pay attention to my own and many health care providers’ intense grief over how our health care system has failed people of color. None of this is new; it has merely been intensified and unmasked in the pandemic. To be clear, my experiences come as the result of a lifetime of immense, largely unearned, privilege – professionally, socioeconomically and racially.
I hear this grief because of my role in helping organizations develop and sustain peer support programs. Since the pandemic began, I have provided virtual peer support to dozens of peers. Many of them share their grief and anger over the widespread structural inequities that our society has ignored and sometimes actively perpetuated. They speak about their mistrust of a health care system that has prevented and at times even co-opted us into propping up structures that prevent us from providing the kind of care we entered the profession to provide. They voice anger and mistrust of government and leaders for their lack of transparency and ultimate failure to provide resources that are needed to protect our particularly vulnerable populations.
As with many intense and complicated life challenges, my personal experience of these times holds a paradox: grief and gratitude. I feel grief and anger over our failures and the resulting burdens that have been placed on so many marginalized communities. Grief and guilt for all that I did not do and did not see. Gratitude for activists both within and outside of health care who have long been working towards a better way, and to those activists and many more of us who are now redoubling or joining that work. Gratitude for my opportunity to learn and do more. Gratitude for those health care leaders who are now listening and acting on behalf of those marginalized groups. And gratitude for the honesty and intensity of caring I have been privy to hearing in providing emotional support for health care providers, as they share their depth of caring, helplessness and hopefulness.
I have long trusted in the overall integrity and caring of my peers. Trust in government and health care leaders has been significantly damaged and will need to be rebuilt. I feel an awakening of possibility.
Jo Shapiro, MD, FACS is an associate professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at Harvard Medical School and a consultant for the Massachusetts General Hospital Dept of Anesthesia, Pain and Critical Care. She is Senior Faculty for the Center for Medical Simulation in Boston and was the founding director of the Center for Professionalism and Peer Support at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.