‘I can’t breathe’: Health inequity and state-sanctioned violence


One might immediately think of the deaths of Eric Garner, George Floyd, or even the fictional character Radio Raheem from Spike Lee’s critically acclaimed film, “Do the Right Thing,” when they hear the words “I can’t breathe.” These words are a cry for help. The deaths of these unarmed black men is devastating and has led to a state of rage, palpable pain, and protest across the world.

Dr. Khaalisha Ajala is a hospitalist and associate site director for education at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta

Dr. Khaalisha Ajala

However, in this moment, I am talking about the health inequity exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it be acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) secondary to severe COVID-19, or the subsequent hypercoagulable state of COVID-19 that leads to venous thromboembolism, many black people in this country are left breathless. Many black patients who had no employee-based health insurance also had no primary care physician to order a SARS-CoV2 PCR lab test for them. Many of these patients have preexisting conditions, such as asthma from living in redlined communities affected by environmental racism. Many grew up in food deserts, where no fresh-produce store was interested enough to set up shop in their neighborhoods. They have been eating fast food since early childhood, as a fast-food burger is still cheaper than a salad. The result is obesity, an epidemic that can lead to diabetes mellitus, hypertension that can lead to coronary artery disease, stroke, and end-stage renal disease.

Earlier in my career, I once had a colleague gleefully tell me that all black people drank Kool-Aid while in discussion of the effects of high-sugar diets in our patients; this colleague was sure I would agree. Not all black people drink Kool-Aid. Secondary to my fear of the backlash that can come from the discomfort of “white fragility” that Robin DiAngelo describes in her New York Times bestseller by the same name, ”White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” I refrained from expressing my own hurt, and I did not offer explicit correction. I, instead, took a serious pause. That pause, which lasted only minutes, seemed to last 400 years. It was a brief reflection of the 400 years of systemic racism seeping into everyday life. This included the circumstances that would lead to the health inequities that result in the health disparities from which many black patients suffer. It is that same systemic racism that could create two America’s in which my colleague might not have to know the historic context in which that question could be hurtful. I retorted with modified shock and a chuckle so that I could muster up enough strength to repeat what was said and leave it open for reflection. The goal was for my colleague to realize the obvious implicit bias that lingered, despite intention. The chuckle was also to cover my pain.

Whether we know it or not, we all carry some form of implicit bias, regardless of race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, or socioeconomic status. In this case, it is the same implicit bias that causes physicians to ignore some black patients when they have said that they are in pain. A groundbreaking April 2016 article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Racial Bias in Pain Assessment and Treatment Recommendations, and False Beliefs about Biological Differences Between Blacks and Whites” (doi: 10.1073/pnas.1516047113), revealed that racial disparities in pain assessment and treatment recommendations can be directly connected to the racial bias of the provider. It could be possible that this phenomenon has affected black patients who have walked into clinics and emergency departments and said, “I’m short of breath. I think that I might have coronavirus and need to be tested.” It may be that same implicit bias that has cut the air supply to a patient encounter. Instead of inquiring further, the patient might be met with minimum questions while their provider obtains their history and physical. Assumptions and blame on behavior and lack of personal responsibility secretly replace questions that could have been asked. Differentials between exacerbations and other etiologies are not explored. Could that patient have been sent home without a SARS-CoV2 polymerase chain reaction test? Well, what if the tests were in short supply? Sometimes they may have been sent home without a chest x-ray. In most cases, there are no funds to send them home with a pulse oximeter.

The act of assuming a person’s story that we consider to be one dimensional is always dangerous – and even more so during this pandemic. That person we can relate to – secondary to a cool pop culture moment, a TikTok song, or a negative stereotype – is not one dimensional. That assumption and that stereotype can make room for implicit bias. That same implicit bias is the knee on a neck of any marginalized patient. Implicit bias is the choke hold that slowly removes the light and life from a person who has a story, who has a family, and who has been an essential worker who can’t work from home. That person is telling us that they can’t breathe, but sometimes the only things seen are comorbidities through a misinformed or biased lens that suggest an assumed lack of personal responsibility. In a May 2020 New England Journal of Medicine perspective, “Racial health disparities and Covid-19” (doi: 10.1056/NEJMp2012910), Merlin Chowkwanyun, PhD, MPH, and Adolph L. Reed Jr., PhD, caution us against creating race-based explanations for presumed behavioral patterns.

Systemic racism has created the myth that the playing field has been leveled since the end of enslavement. It hasn’t. That black man, woman, or nonbinary person is telling you “I can’t breathe. I’m tired. I’m short of breath ... I have a cough ... I’m feeling weak these days, Doc.” However, implicit bias is still that knee that won’t let up. It has not let up. Communities with lower-income black and Hispanic patients have already seen local hospitals and frontline workers fight to save their lives while losing their own to COVID-19. We all witnessed the battle for scarce resources and PPE [personal protective equipment]. In contrast, some wealthy neighborhoods have occupants who most likely have access to a primary care physician and more testing centers.

As we reexamine ourselves and look at these cases of police brutality against unarmed black men, women, and children with the appropriate shame and outrage, let us reflect upon the privileges that we enjoy. Let us find our voice as we speak up for black lives. Let us look deeply into the history of medicine as it relates to black patients by reading Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present” by Harriet A. Washington. Let us examine that painful legacy, which, while having moments of good intention, still carries the stain of indifference, racism, neglect, and even experimentation without informed consent.

Why should we do these things? Because some of our black patients have also yelled or whispered, “I can’t breathe,” and we were not always listening either.

Dr. Ajala is a hospitalist and associate site director for education at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. She is a member of the executive council for SHM’s Care for Vulnerable Populations special interest group.

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