In American culture, denial is one of our most persistent, yet tacit, defense mechanisms, as it allows society to ignore aspects of reality, regardless of the scale. The denial paves a path for some to bestow more human value upon those they favor, thereby leading to the institutionalization and structuring of racism and associated inequity across the nation.
Today, vast disparities in death and infections from the COVID-19 virus among Black people and in communities of color in the United States may make it impossible logically to comprehend any denials of the painful reality caused by centuries of collective adherence to racial hierarchy as a societal pillar and construct.
Could this pandemic help us, as a whole society, to finally see and understand the dire consequences and overwhelming implications of racism I have observed in my decades of clinical practice as a holistic health care provider?
Look at the devastation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that a disproportionate number of COVID-19 hospitalized patients are African Americans, and that death rates among the Black/African American population (92.3 deaths per 100,000 population) and Hispanic/LatinX (74.3) are substantially higher than that of the White (45.2) or Asian (34.5) populations. Further, counties with significant Black populations account for nearly 60 percent of recorded deaths and 50 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases. When Milwaukee County in Wisconsin had 945 COVID-19 cases, nearly half the cases and 81 percent of the 27 deaths were African Americans, yet the county is only 26 percent Black. The disproportion in deaths and cases among populations of color is happening in urban and rural communities across the country.
Hopefully, our nation’s people can use the shocking pain and suffering from this pandemic to find the courage to unite and move forward together, as our shattered society seeks to right itself, and move beyond the denial that has shaped our present. Government, corporate, civic, spiritual and community leadership during and post-COVID-19 must be committed to supporting collective healing and societal transformation. America’s future well-being is at stake.
Leaders must begin to help everyone recognize that long-lasting injustices and harm to some is injurious to all, because we are interdependent and interconnected. Even more so as we witness the coronavirus virus ravaging White, Black and Brown communities, forcing us all to shelter or risk becoming casualties of the devastation.
Propelled by monied, eager consumers, our consumption-driven economy mirrors our dependence upon one another. Milk not purchased is milk lost. Empty tables equal closed restaurants and unemployed workers. COVID-19 is moving us beyond denial by helping us realize the fragility in our economic systems.
The very air we breathe — inhale and exhale — or “shed” in today’s viral parlance, makes us interconnected and interdependent as well. The molecules of this virus seem to adhere better to particulate matter in the polluted air of densely populated spaces. This helps to make accountability for air quality standards everyone’s concern. To be clear, if air puts more people at risk of illness and therefore death, the burden on the nation’s bewildered public health and medical infrastructure is a shared burden. Cruise ships, airplanes, crowded streets and buildings illustrate the interconnectedness of our vulnerable society. COVID-19 is moving us beyond denial by helping us realize how the air we breathe connects us.
Our human need for help is another stark and humbling reminder of our interdependence.
Who is here to provide help and care in our homes, hospitals, institutions and essential businesses? Can we pay, protect, and care for them as they care for us?
These are among the many challenges we face. Will COVID-19 catapult us to new levels of humanity, compassion and capacity for policies and practices that honor our interconnected, equal worth as human beings? Or will most merely survive and continue to wear the mask of perpetual denial of racial hierarchy as a defining American ideology? The choice is ours. The time is now.
If far too many Americans have been living in a state of denial about the vast racial and economic inequities in our society, seeing the stark reality of these injustices during this pandemic is only a baby step and potentially very fleeting. Denial is a stubbornly comfortable psychological tool. Ask any recovering addict. If a critical mass of people is now seeing and recognizing our structured inequities— some for the first time— the next vital step involves acknowledging the consequences of these inequities.
COVID-19 is helping with this phase, too. Here are glimpses of consequences and disruptions created by this pandemic that demonstrate our web of mutual dependence:
“What, no meat in my grocery store because the meat-packing plant shuttered after hundreds of workers became infected with the coronavirus because they had no personal protective equipment?”
“My toddler cannot go to her childcare center because after six weeks of closure and no cash flow, it had to go out of business. The owner did not succeed in securing a small business loan through the Payroll Protection Program, even as publicly traded companies received millions. There are no other childcare options in my neighborhood because it is a ‘COVID-19 hot spot.’”
“I cannot get my prescription for high-blood-pressure medication refilled to cover weeks of sheltering in place because my insurance won’t pay for the increased amount. I cannot pay out of pocket because my income is reduced.”
If and when people can move through the phases of denial — facing the facts and the consequences of both longstanding unjust inequities and our mutual interdependence, as COVID-19 compels us to do, then the frightening next phase — facing the implications — could be difficult.
Fears of being helpless in a violently divided future with total economic collapse can rush in like a back draft in a fire. Or we can see opportunity in the implications of the stark reality of now. We can feel the needless suffering of so many and see ourselves and loved ones in their faces. Empathy can move us to exercise our civic agency in this democracy and work for policies and new structures of equity and fairness.
Moving through the comfort of denial to this degree of resilient agency and action requires the energy of determination, fueled by positive emotion. Yes, feelings comprise the last rung on the ladder of denial. Feelings can either paralyze us and send us scurrying back to our original place of denial (now even more firmly entrenched); or new feelings can move us to purposeful action.
In clinical practice I learned that people move through four stages of denial — fact, consequences, implications and feelings — and truly change their behaviors and actions only when they believe they have the resources required for successfully coping and being resilient. Most often, these needed resources are human. People need to know they are valued, worthy and cared for. Love replaces fear.
The societal prescription for this nation during and post-COVID-19 is first a relational one— a transformation in how we see, perceive and value people: all people.
This is a collective change of heart that can generate new government and corporate priorities and practices, as well as new media and communications imperatives, as well as new health system priorities and expenditures. We can, together, stop denying the intertwined vulnerability caused by centuries of ignoring the full humanity we share and begin to build a new social contract, unlearning and replacing the existing social design whose legacy is explicit and implicit human-value hierarchy.
— Dr. Gail C. Christopher is the executive director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity, senior scholar at the Center for Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University, founder of the RxRacial Healing movement, and former senior adviser and vice president of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.