I am ashamed to admit it: I laughed when I saw the news story of the black woman who wore plastic bags as she picked up a student from a Memphis school where an employee had contact with a patient who had tested positive for the new strain of coronavirus.
As a black woman and a practicing physician who works on Chicago’s South Side, I shouldn’t make light of the way a fellow black woman attempts to protect herself in a country that often does little to protect her. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends frequent hand washing, social distancing including avoiding crowds, keeping hands away from the face, and suggests wearing a mask only if you are sick.)
Doctors are certainly not immune to panic or fear. But we are trained to remain calm in the face of uncertainty. We are taught to rely on data science and expert consensus to help us act rationally in tense situations.
Rather than donning plastic bags or clearing the shelves of toilet paper, doctors spend their time poring over the CDC website for updates. They are trained in virology and epidemiology, and understand bell curves and prevalence rates. Because of this, doctors have the privilege of prepping for the pandemic in a way that is supported by evidence.
But perhaps doctors’ biggest privilege of all is trust. Specifically, they trust CDC and the scientists who work within it. They trust their fellow doctors to do the right thing. They trust that their profession, despite its shortcomings, is committed to healing people the best it can.
I don’t know why this woman chose to wear plastic bags. But I get why black people may not trust the medical profession or the government over their own intuition when it comes to their health.
Famously, the U.S. government backed the Tuskegee syphilis study, in which black men with syphilis were intentionally denied treatment for the disease for four decades. The government has propagated all manner of violence against black people and continues to do so.
The medical profession has also done little to gain the trust of black people. Doctors are less likely to adequately treat black patient’s pain. And black women are 2.5 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. There is no shortage of statistics pointing to health disparities between blacks and whites.
Black people may not know all the numbers by heart, but the sentiment is not lost. And the distrust has real consequences. Studies show that black patients’ trust in doctors significantly predicts whether or not they accept health recommendations.
This begs the question: Was woman’s makeshift protective suit truly the result of ignorance? Or was it the result of rational distrust?
Either way, the video of her will be added to the annals of internet history, along with news clips of Antoine Dodson, who warned the public to protect loved ones from rapists, Sweet Brown and her expressive story of escaping a fire, and other black people whose fear was parodied for the masses.
To be sure, people need moments of levity at a time when panic and fear are at an all-time high. But we must take a hard look at the types of people who seem to be the butt of the joke most often.
We must ask if our laughter erases their humanity.
Dr. Brandi Jackson is a psychiatrist and assistant professor at Rush University Medical Center. She is the co-founder of Medlikeme.com, an initiative to increase diversity in medicine, and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.