Commentary: It's time to stop the spread of deadliest virus in U.S. history

June 08, 2020
Anton Gunn speaking in an auditorium
Anton Gunn wanted to believe COVID-19 would be the deadliest virus of his lifetime. Then he realized it wasn't. Photo by Son Nguyen

MUSC Health’s Chief Diversity Officer, Anton Gunn, recently wrote a letter to employees titled “It’s time to stop the spread.” It appears here with his permission.

I intended to share a different message with you this month, but I am tired. Actually, I am exhausted. I know many other African Americans are exhausted, too. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and the countless number of black people’s deaths we’ve witnessed on video deserved better — as do all of the African Americans who receive similar treatment that is not captured on camera. None of my personal experiences have been captured on camera. However, there are multiple times in my life that I could have been like George Floyd. So, I am exhausted and outraged about the injustice, unfairness and the systematic mistreatment that happens every day.

All of these recent events happened in the shadow of a global pandemic that is further exposing multi-generational inequities in the American health care system. The result is African Americans suffering disproportionate and severe impacts of COVID-19. 

I actually wanted to believe that the COVID-19 virus was going to be the biggest and deadliest virus we would face in my lifetime. However, I was suppressing and ignoring my firsthand personal experiences with the biggest and most deadly virus in American history. That virus is racism. 

Both of these viruses are similar in nature. People infected with them don’t know they have them. Even if they do know, they pretend that they don’t. There are other people who live like the virus doesn’t matter. They pretend like the virus is not real, or it’s not that big of a deal. Some will even accuse me of blowing it out of proportion. And because of their blatant disregard for the experiences of others, they spread this virus to other people. One virus has been a pandemic for 100+ days. The other virus has been a pandemic for 400+ years. 

The results are evident. Regardless of how long they have been around, the viruses are disproportionately and unnecessarily killing African Americans. We are dying at a higher and faster rate than any other demographic in America. Neither virus is a coincidence. They spread because of how we live our lives and how we think. One virus requires us to put a mask on. The other virus requires us to take the mask off. The deadly results are a manifestation of the structural, institutional and individual racism that exists in America.

When it comes to the virus of racism, we seem not to have a solution or cure. There are brilliant, passionate and well-meaning people who have given us strategies and solutions to prevent it from spreading. However, we as a nation seem unprepared and unwilling to do what it takes to slow the spread. For me, our lack of preparation and commitment to end this virus is the saddest part.

This message has been difficult to write, but I must tell you the truth: We will only stop the spread of these viruses if we work together. We must individually hold ourselves accountable for our ignorance and indifference. We must raise our consciousness and our competence in getting at the root cause of the virus. We must work like hell to kill it at the root. Raising our consciousness means we can’t ever go back to how it was before we became aware of both of these viruses. 

If you believe in the MUSC Health values of compassion, teamwork, diversity, accountability and innovation, you cannot go back to the way things were before we saw George Floyd killed in the street, in broad daylight, on video. We all must work to make sure this never happens again. We all must be the agents of change. For me, this is what high reliability looks like. Zero harm. 

I know I am going to do something about it. I am going to be more vigilant against racism, injustice, bigotry and unfairness in our city, in our state and our nation. I’m going to help anyone that wants to do the same.

What are you going to do? Are you going to stop this virus? Or are you going to spread it? The choice is yours, but you must make a choice.

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