2020 was the longest decade of my life. Time lost all meaning as the days, weeks, and months ran together into a distressing, depressing sludge of death counts, crises, neverending elections, and isolation. For ten months we held our breath, literally and figuratively, waiting for a new year to bring us something, anything that was better than what we were living through. And now here we are in 2021--is it safe to exhale yet?
It’s not, of course, because turning the calendar page won’t end the pandemic. In the same way, a new president can’t undo the last four years of intensifying racism and xenophobia in our policies and communities, and now that we want everyone to get a COVID-19 vaccine, we can’t just erase centuries of neglect and abuse of Black, Indigenous and other people of color by the health care system.
How we will recover and heal from COVID-19 as a society and country has been top of mind for many of us. Individuals and organizations have written impassioned calls to action and detailed policy maps that can guide our hearts and minds. At Center for Health Progress, we have also been thinking deeply about our vision and path for an equitable recovery in Colorado. We’ve been planning alongside our grassroots members, because they and their communities continue to unfairly shoulder the burden of our crises and know better than any of us what it will take to solve them.
As an organization, we have been committed to working toward health equity for many years. Many people and organizations in our field talk about health equity as ensuring equal outcomes--that there is nothing about a person’s race, class, gender, citizenship status or otherwise that should limit their health or health care access. After a year like 2020 though, is that even enough? Would it be enough to solve maternal mortality disparities, close life expectancy gaps, provide health insurance and paid family leave to all regardless of documentation status--would it be enough to achieve equal health outcomes for future generations? Would the families of the 350,000 people who have died of COVID-19 in the US feel better if they knew we’d do better in the next pandemic? True justice rightfully demands more of us than that.
Recovering from the last year--and centuries further back, if we’re being honest with ourselves--is going to require recognizing and repairing the full extent of the harm white people have caused communities of color. This must happen across all systems and institutions, including in health care. The history of racism in the US health care system is long and well-documented, and the impact has been generational trauma and untold damage to communities. It will also require white people like myself to recognize our own roles in upholding white supremacy, wrestle with our own sins and those of our ancestors, and be actively anti-racist in our daily actions. We owe it to each other and to ourselves and to our ancestors before us to restore and repair the harm.
If there is one positive outcome from 2020, it is the knowledge that we can do extraordinary things together. We can mobilize trillions of dollars. We can develop a vaccine for a novel virus in record time. We can make bold policy changes--at the Capitol, in our states, in our workplaces, in our schools, in our communities, and everywhere else--quickly, to suit the needs of the people and the demands of the time. And even when our leaders and government fail us, we can come together to take care of each other.
Happy New Year--may we fill it with peace, health, and justice for all.