Opinion | I Fought Two Plagues and Only Beat One

The last 12 weeks will haunt me forever. At the Montefiore Health System, where I am the chief executive, the coronavirus has killed 2,204 patients and 21 members of our courageous staff, despite our best efforts.

Now, as the pandemic has subsided and our Covid-19 caseload has dropped to 143 patients from a peak of 2,208 on April 12, the nation is coming to grips with another fearful crisis — the lethal effects of racism, the pain of which is all too familiar to me.

It was hard for me to watch the video of Amy Cooper calling 911 after Christian Cooper, a black bird watcher in Central Park, asked her to leash her dog. “There’s an African-American man … threatening myself and my dog,” she told the dispatcher, putting Mr. Cooper’s freedom and life in the balance.

I know what he must have expected would come next, because I’m a black man. I know — from when I was stopped years ago in Los Angeles while walking through a white neighborhood to catch a bus — that the police could ask him to put his arms up in the air, turn around, walk backward, get on his knees, interlace his fingers behind his head and get frisked, all before any questions were asked. And if he dared to be indignant and ask why, well now he’s resisting, and the situation could easily escalate. He may not go home that day.

I have never been arrested, as George Floyd was before a police officer crushed him to death. But I know the frustration and the rage and the humiliation of having to accept the abuse of police power. I know what it feels like to be pulled over almost daily because you’re young and you’re black and you’re male and you’re driving a late-model automobile.

I know what it feels like when the officer walks up and the first question is, “Is this your car?” And the next command is, “Please step out of the car.” And then sit on the pavement, cross your ankles, put your hands behind you. And I know what it’s like to sit there for 40 minutes while they take the drug-sniffing dog through your car. For no reason whatsoever. And at the end of it, with no explanation and no apology, to be told, “OK, you’re good, you can go now.”

I also know what it feels like to be at a fancy gala at the Waldorf Astoria in a tuxedo, waiting to check your coat, and have other people walk up and hand you their mink coats and say, “Check this for me.”

I know the cumulative burden of those experiences day after day, week after week, month after month, decade after decade.

While I know from experience that most law enforcement officers honorably fulfill their oath to protect and serve, African-American men in particular have reason to fear that the police will hurt or kill them because of the color of their skin and they deserve to be free from that fear. All Americans deserve to have a life where they can walk freely, not threatened and harassed in their own country.

It’s hard to find comfort in this troubling time. But I see rare hope that these twin disasters disproportionately hurting minorities — one a brand-new virus and the other a virus as old as the country itself — could finally prove the true strength of our shared humanity.

America has changed its behavior in such profound and fundamental ways to mitigate the coronavirus, from self-quarantining and working from home to wearing masks and literally risking our lives to care for the sick. As our streets fill every night with protesters demanding a change that has been too long in coming, I dare to hope that we as a people can summon the same selfless courage and determination to change our behavior to address the endemic racism and brutality that plagues our country.

Then finally we may rid ourselves of that deadly virus as well.

Philip O. Ozuah is president and chief executive of Montefiore Medicine.

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