COVID and racism: Tipping points for change in 2020

Author(s): Marie Nolan, PHD, MPH, RN, FAAN and Patricia Davidson, PhD, MEd, RN, FAAN

We’re halfway through the year, and 2020 has become one that no one will forget. For months now, we’ve had to bear witness to global suffering and death as a result of COVID-19. Individuals, families, and communities have been devastated not just by the health consequences of this novel illness, but also the economic strain, the toll on mental health, and the loss of what we used to know as a normal functioning society.

But perhaps even deeper wounds have been created by the most recent evidence of structural racism in the tragic death of George Floyd, a black man. What we have witnessed on our television screens reflects the daily life of many in society—injustices through no fault of their own but the color of their skin. We need to acknowledge the pain, anger, frustration and grief that so many are feeling at the moment.

Amid this though, we know that outrage that leads only to destruction instead of reform will leave us feeling burned. It is true that both the COVID-19 pandemic and protests across the country have laid open the broad cracks in our society that have left communities vulnerable and broken. And it’s our hope that now maybe we have reached the tipping point politically, economically, and socially where we have no other choice than to make radical and drastic changes for the betterment of our country and world.

This commitment to change will be difficult, but we are ever persistent to seeing a new day. We have hope because of nursing heroes like Lavinia Loyd Dock, who campaigned for women’s suffrage 100 years ago. She was a feminist, author, pioneer in nursing education and social activist. It would not have been easy for her to fight for women’s rights during such a time in history, but it was because of her determination, the use of her voice, and her leadership in several protests that eventually the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was instituted.

There was certainly immense pushback for her efforts and probably many who criticized her actions, but she didn’t crack under the pressure, and we hope to live with that same courage and fortitude in today’s world of entrenched bias and structural inequalities.

Our vision as nurses will need to be clear and bold because focusing on what is just and right is a long-term commitment. It will require compassion, understanding, innovation, and leadership. In health care, we will need to practice empathy and put ourselves into our patient’s shoes now more than ever. Our diversity as a profession will be key, and recruiting those who reflect the race, gender, and cultural backgrounds of our patients and their families is without compromise.

We will need to be leaders by sitting on the board table to bring the first-hand patient experiences no matter how hard they may be to listen to. And we will need to practice advocacy by testifying on the Hill armed with knowledge, evidence, and the stories that reflect the populations we serve.

In many ways, we grieve for the normalcy of the past because COVID-19 has flipped our routines and ways of thinking upside down, but with the appalling events that have centered on race and brutality, we know that this is not the time to go backward. Things can’t ever be the same, and we need to leverage this time in history to make them better.

Nursing is the most trusted profession and it’s a recognition that we can use to truly enact change. We have to commit to our post COVID-19 world being different. For those of you working hard to address the health inequities that keep us split apart, we commend your incredible resolve and strength. Our collective work will contribute to a better world.

With each moment of 2020 that has seemed to make our life feel unstable and uncertain, we have never been prouder to be nurses. 2020 truly is the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife. It’s the start of a dramatic new way of living, and an unprecedented opportunity to stand up for our neighbors, communities, and the planet.

Marie Nolan, PHD, MPH, RN, FAAN, is professor and executive vice dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. She is internationally known for her work on patient and family decision making in the face of critical illness. Her pioneering end-of-life research has revealed that instead of the autonomous decision making model prevalent in clinical practice and healthcare policy, most critically ill patients prefer shared decision making with their family and physician.

Patricia Davidson, PhD, MEd, RN, FAAN is the Dean and a Professor of Nursing at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. She has been a registered nurse since 1980 and has clinical, teaching, and practice expertise in cardiovascular science and the care of vulnerable populations. Across her career, she has been committed to developing innovative models of person-centered care delivery and evidence-based teaching.

Dr. Davidson is secretary general of the Secretariat of the World Health Organizations Collaborating Centers for Nursing and Midwifery, counsel general of the International Council on Women’s Health Issues, a member of Sigma Theta Tau International’s Institute for Global Healthcare Leadership Advisory Board, and a board member of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health. She also serves on the Board on Health Care Services for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

1 COMMENT

  1. Well written article, however, would have liked to see and hear the sentiments of an African American person in leadership in your school or program in this article.

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