COVID-19 and America’s true colors


During times of stress, true colors show. The United States is a global leader and literally a dream for millions around the world. During the pandemic pandemonium, we should want to be proud to be American. What does that mean right now, though?

After the government’s expansive recent transformations in their role with emergency programs becoming available in light of the CARES Act being approved, I cannot help but think about the hypocrisy being shuffled under the rug.

As a physician, the usual paradigm when patients see me is that they expect to get help. My personal realization of a change in the times was taking care of a patient undergoing a procedure prior to my home city of New York becoming the U.S. epicenter of disease. After saying, “Hi,” my patient started yelling. I initially felt offended, but couldn’t tell why. I tried to understand what he was upset about in order to appease him. When I started listening to his tirade, though, I began to understand he was irate not with rage, but with concern. He yelled, “If you all get sick, who will help the people?”

I have never heard a patient so acutely concerned about my well-being. It broke down all levels of the traditional doctor-patient relationship. Yet this man came to me far more concerned about my health than his own.

His concern was warranted. With the number of COVID-19 patients rapidly rising, including among front-line health care workers as I have become, who will be left to take care of patients? While the U.S. proudly takes the number one position for many rankings, most number of COVID-19 cases do not earn any trophies.

I reflect on that interaction frequently now as I don my personal protective equipment, checking my N95 mask as if my life could literally depend on it. This is a time to let all of our true colors show, and America is no different.

In watching all branches of government unite to implement programmatic changes to help in this national emergency, it shows signs of promise, regardless of political color. It is important to know our country takes our well-being seriously, just as this patient did for mine.

If we look at our government’s clear action plan and think about how it shows what we stand for as Americans, why is there such cognitive dissonance when there is no pandemic or global emergency?

Why six months ago was there so much disagreement about expanding government programs to provide better access to healthcare? Yet now, both sides of the aisle are excited to proclaim centralized benefits such as free COVID-19 testing that will try to avoid leaving people with medical bills resulting from the virus.

Why were so many opposed to student debt relief programs to help graduates afford to educate themselves? Yet without hesitation, the government has suspended federal student loan interest and offered penalty-free forbearance.

Why did people acquiesce to mediocre benefits for childcare and sick leave? Yet with business closures and job losses, unemployment benefits and even cash payments from the government – “Trump bucks” – were a no-brainer.

Dare I ask, admittedly facetiously, whether some people would have thought multi-billion dollar companies and high-earning CEOs would provide the funding for all this with all of their tax savings? Is that what was tangibly meant by trickle-down economics? This must not be the case given the various airline and tech companies that have come to light spending cash stores on stock buy-backs instead of trying to save for a rainy day like the rest of us. COVID-19 has equalized us all though, now waiting for government assistance to weather the storm.

As we approach the next presidential election, we should all think about what our true colors are. If programs that expand health coverage, improve our ability to care for our families, and help our neighbors falling on tough times can unite our country making it strong enough to get through crisis, imagine what these initiatives could do when we have time to make the best of them.

I have confidence that America will get through the COVID-19 pandemic and learn much in the process. It is inevitable that in times of crisis, our true colors will show. However, the real test of character is what happens when no one is watching. I urge us all to think about who and what we want representing the red, white, and blue and be thankful we have the freedom to cast our ballots.

Mark P. Abrams is a cardiologist.

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