When I was at another institution in another job, I worked with a great group of scientists that studied coronaviruses. Secretly, I think we all wanted to eradicate the common cold. It was the most interesting and strangest group of people, and yet they formed a brilliant team. I am sure they never would have dreamed of living through a coronavirus pandemic like COVID-19. As focused as we were as scientists, we were diverse in nearly every other way one could imagine. We had different scientific training, and we held polar opposite political, philosophical and religious beliefs, and yet we could passionately talk about those views without anger. Someone on the team said we were a model of how the United Nations should be. Somehow, we tolerated and even loved each other. Even though we hardly agreed on anything else, we all had one passion and one goal that fired our imaginations, and that was to lead the science in our field.

One day we were gathered for lunch, we often did that as a group, and chatter started about Woodstock. I had vivid memories of that time. I was working in a laboratory learning surgical techniques and about to restart my education. I told the group how bummed out I was in that season of my life, as I had missed the event. Someone else talked about going and how awful it was despite the music because it had rained and sewage was everywhere, along with the maladies that result from that kind of exposure and others of a more personal etiology. That led to someone asking about the Hong Kong Flu, the pandemic in that season. Eventually someone else started talking about “the end times,” a thing people do when tragedies unfold. And that led to talk of civil unrest across the globe and a discussion of the riots in Detroit in 1968.

Looking back on those days has been useful in these days. I knew of the outbreak of H3N2 (Hong Kong Flu) and that it was lethal in people 65 years and older, but I didn’t think much about it outside of reading a public health brief or two from the CDC. I wasn’t alone in that since there was hardly any news coverage of it. There was no shuttering of the economy, no masking except in clinics and laboratories, no social distancing, no talk of flattening the curve, no concerns of the sort we have seen during COVID-19.

It makes me think of our “Flattening the Curve” slogan. There are all kinds of curves that need to be flattened. As an epidemiologist, I use statistics daily. There are lots of metrics that can be expressed mathematically as a curve, like socioeconomic status and the disparities that follow from it. The reason we had to flatten the curve in COVID-19 was so we didn’t overwhelm the health care system. We also needed to protect providers of care. Eventually, what we do will protect others because we will find the causes and cures and we’ll learn more effective ways of prevention.

I don’t study coronavirus these days. These days, I study health disparities in rural areas. I have another great team of scientists that I am working with to better understand what causes them and what we can do to prevent them. It’s just as true that we must flatten those other curves, too, the ones that cover social determinants of health, social injustice, and those that cause health disparities. It has got to begin with understanding the facets of our culture that systematically work against the privilege that all Americans ought to enjoy.

I actually feel hopeful today for the first time since the horrible news broke about the killing of a man named George Floyd in a city where I did post-doctoral study. The reason I feel hopeful is my research team. They are all much younger than me and as diverse as that team I described earlier. It occurs to me that if we can tackle health disparities and viruses, then we can tackle social ills as well.

We cannot have angst about our health care resources and not be just as concerned about our communities and the people that live there. We are in the midst of a war of ideas, and our politics seem more heated and antagonistic than ever. Media has expanded, exploded even, and there are easily accessible views on tap as varied as the people who produce or consume them. This is definitely a pandemic of another sort. Where it all is going is pure speculation except for one simple fact: perception matters. As W.I. Thomas once said, “an event perceived as true is true in its consequences.” We are living in the midst of that reality.

As I recall my old research team, I wonder if we might all step back, take a deep breath, and consider this: love conquers all. We all loved our science, and we shared one goal despite our differences. It made us love each other even more. That’s true of my new research team as well. There’s a L.R. Knost quote I like that sums it up for coronaviruses and cultural viruses alike: “Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”

Yes, you. And me, too. Let’s begin now.

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Billy U. Philips Jr.
Dr. Billy U. Philips Jr. is Publisher of Rural Health Quarterly and Director of the F. Marie Hall Institute for Rural and Community Health at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.