Leadership and Racism in Pandemic Times by Jamiu Busari

On the 9th of June 2020, George Perry Floyd Jr. was laid to rest in Pearland, Texas. What ensued in the aftermath of his killing was a cathartic revolt to a pre-existent global pandemic. It was a pandemic that the world preferred to believe did not exist, but pervaded the inner fabric of our educational, economic, political, and health care systems. Up until his death (one of the very many since the history of the slave trade), the world had largely chosen to ignore, or failed to acknowledge openly, the injustice of overt and covert racism. Like many other minorities, people of colour have had to endure systematic prejudice, and compete for a living on an unfair “playing field”.

Two Pandemics, one world

Today, the world is amid two pandemics. One is #Covid-19; the other is #racism. The first reported case of Covid-19 was in a 55-year-old individual from Hubei province, China, dating back to 17th of November 2019 1. Since then, a rapid spread of the disease has been seen across the globe. Even before the death of George Floyd exposed the injustice of racism, tell-tale signs were popping up in many countries, signs of a disproportionate impact of COVID-19 among minority groups e.g., the poor, less educated, and those with pre-existent comorbidities. Most of these cases were people of colour. In countries like the UK, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 was also seen among British Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) health professionals. BAME employees represent an estimated 21 percent of the NHS staff in the UK, with approximately 20 percent among nursing and support staff and 44 percent among medical staff 2. Data of COVID-19 related fatalities, however, revealed that BAME staff accounted for an estimated 63 percent, 64 percent and 95 percent of deaths in the same staff groups 3. In the United States of America, despite non-Hispanic black or African Americans constituting approximately 13% of the country’s population, the distribution of COVID-19 patient fatalities also showed a similarly disproportionate number of deaths in this group (23%) compared to 53.2% of Non-Hispanic white deaths 4. With respect to racism, the second pandemic, its origins are rooted in the European age of imperialism, a period around the mid-1700s when European nations embarked on the colonization and annexation of other parts of the world. Events of the 19th century included the “Scramble for Africa, the growth of capitalism, and the Atlantic slave trade. All of these subsequently served as catalysts for the nineteenth-century racial segregation in the United States and early twentieth-century apartheid in South Africa. Till today many people of colour still experience discrimination, microaggressions, and implicit bias in academia, healthcare, and the corporate world. As the saying goes, “when you are black, and you speak up, they call you “cocky.” If you are black, courteous, and show restraint, they call you “weak.” Today, this sort of language is still being used to justify unfair and racist practices in healthcare and academia 5.

The global response

However, the way the world has responded to each of these pandemics has been very different. While the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a frenzy of activity, a high sense of urgency with lockdowns, curfews, “stay at home” and “social distancing” campaigns, the response to the longstanding pandemic of racism revealed a world in a state of constant denial. Up until the 25th of May 2020 when George Floyd was killed in open daylight, there had been no frenzy in the world about racism, and certainly not on a scale like the one we are currently witnessing. The Minneapolis event laid it bare to the world, the brutal reality of #inequity and racism in our societies. Finally, people of colour felt emboldened and found a voice on a global scale to protest several centuries of oppression. They found new allies from all races among the young and old. Together, they marched the roads of America, London, Amsterdam and beyond, demanding change to the systematic process of inequity and injustice in our political, academic, and health care systems in western societies. Despite the risks they faced, they demonstrated courage, allyship, and leadership with people of colour. However, what happened to all of the voices of institutions, leaders and peers in academia and health care?

Complacency hurts

To date, only a handful of academic institutions and organisations openly and immediately denounced racism after the events of the 25th of May.

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01723-9;

https://www.worc.ox.ac.uk/statement-against-racism;

http://newsroom.royalcollege.ca/statement-on-racism/;

https://www.nwo.nl/en/news-and-events/news/2020/06/inclusive-science-matters.html

Also, only a few non-coloured peers, leaders, and people of influence have openly denounced this latest injustice of racism. So, is this perceived silence, a message condoning the injustice of racism? Is the message that Black lives do not matter? As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “in the end, we will not remember the words of our friends, but the silence of our friends.” What many people of colour wish for, including those in academia and health care, is not sympathy or pity from others. Instead, it is knowing, feeling, and seeing that their non-coloured peers openly denounce the (implicit) injustice in #racism. People of colour in leadership, academia, and healthcare have endured a lot of injustice, prejudice, and bias and need allies who would stand by them and support their cause 5. They need advocates who will speak up with them and not for them. It is the sort of  #Advocacy that requires that we speak up when needed, even if it is inconvenient. We cannot continue to be complacent because #BlackLivesMatter.

Reinventing Leadership

One thing I have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is the extent to which racism and the discrimination of minority groups have been nestled into our social, healthcare, and academic structures. It has shone a bright light on leadership and unveiled a façade that has been covering the true identities of inadequate and inauthentic leaders. I also believe that everyone has a moral responsibility to address any unjust (in)action when it involves heinous acts against a fellow human being. Like the injustice we see in gender inequality, we should be unequivocally clear about the crime in racism. So, if our #female peers feel oppressed, we need to stand up. If our #jewish or #muslim peers are oppressed, we should stand up. If our #LGBTQ peers say they are oppressed, we have to stand up. And if our peers of #colour are feeling or being oppressed, we have to stand up. We need to give them a voice. Standing up together is #Allyship#Advocacy, and authentic #Leadership 6.

References

  1. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/3074991/coronavirus-chinas-first-confirmed-covid-19-case-traced-back
  2. https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/workforce-and-business/workforce-diversity/nhs-workforce/latest#by-ethnicity
  3. https://www.hsj.co.uk/exclusive-deaths-of-nhs-staff-from-covid-19-analysed/7027471.article.
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid_weekly/#Race_Hispanic
  5. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/ustoo-unheard-victims-harassment-metoo-era-jamiu-o-busari/
  6. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/leadership-advocacy-era-covid-19-jamiu-o-busari/

 

Dr Jamiu Busari

Jamiu Busari is an associate professor of medical education at Maastricht University and a consultant pediatrician and Dean HOH Academy at Horacio Oduber Hospital, Aruba. He is a public speaker, writer, educator, and health care leader. He is also a fervent advocate for diversity, equity and inclusivity towards the marginalized in society.

Declaration of interests

I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: none.

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