A few years ago, I was at a community health festival in Brownsville, a high-crime, very poor area of Brooklyn that is among the worst statistically in every category in New York City. After a while, I noticed something very important: few of the people coming in for checkups, testing, and medical advice were women; a majority of the people coming in were young men — all of them African American or Caribbean American.
It turns out that with the women, they felt they had no real need to come to the festival because they were getting care through pre-natal treatment at local public hospitals. But the guys were not going to doctors since many of them were unemployed, had no health insurance, and knew little about state health care exchanges.
I remember thinking if a communicable disease ever spread among this sample of Black men, then the public health system would not be able to respond to it in time because of the lack of routine care brothers receive, and perhaps because the public health system fails to know Black men and what affects us.
Turns out, that’s exactly what went down in Dallas when Thomas Eric Duncan (pictured) died of complications from his infection with the Ebola virus on Wednesday.
When you take a step back and look at things, Ebola is only one of the things that killed Duncan. There are other factors that others who were diagnosed did not have to deal with and that’s why they are still alive.
Three Americans all contracted Ebola while working as volunteers for a missionary group in Liberia. Another got it while working as a journalist there. When those four were diagnosed, treatment was almost immediate. They were taken to the United States and given what was needed. These cases were examples of the virus being diagnosed on the spot and getting an immediate response.
In Duncan’s case, though, he depended on a public health system that basically sent him home with some antibiotics, and through a series of human error, rendered him infected for a longer period without proper treatment, allowing the virus to attack his system to a point where he could not build antibodies to fight it.
Now I’m no conspiracy theorist, so I’ll stay away from a lot of the nonsense that I’ve seen spewed about this case. But looking at the overall picture, there is clearly a disconnect between the public health system and Black males in this country, and in my view, Duncan’s case is but one example.
Going back to the health festival, the brothers that came said they rarely went to doctors or dental visits. Some had never even had their blood pressure checked, and the most care they had ever received was through emergency medicine.
It’s been said many times before that gun violence in Black communities is a public health crisis, one that should involve epidemiologists and trained health care workers. Homicide, is the leading cause of death for Black men in this country, ages 15-34.
So during some of the prime years of life for Black men, a time when they should be focused on education, career development, wealth building, and even starting families, they are afflicted with a chronic disease that is primarily dealt with reactively.
So who’s responsible? A public health system that either misdiagnoses cases like Duncan’s or hasn’t been proactive enough in dealing with gun violence? Or perhaps we brothers ourselves bear some responsibility as well. Maybe we should engage the public health system more by simply going to doctors and dentists regularly, and also demanding that it serves our needs before we are afflicted with ailments like Ebola or gunshot wounds.
Thomas Eric Duncan should still be alive.
I’m not completely convinced that he lied about exposure to Ebola while in Liberia. He may not have known that he was or he may not have had the education about the disease he needed to realize that he was exposed.
But the reason he’s not alive is because the system that is supposed to find out what’s wrong didn’t. So it’s time for Black men and the public health system to actually come to some common ground for our own well being, whether it is a virus that is afflicting us or street violence.