Remembering Dr King Jr.’s humanity in COVID-19 battle

Dr. Radha Persaud

The current pandemic has given the world a lot to think and write about. In this article, I will offer some reflections on two themes. The first is Dr. Martin Luther King’s idea of our common humanity and how this has been demonstrated in the global battle against the coronavirus. The second, and related theme, is the courage and dedication of front-line workers in this battle.

As the world continues to fight the deadly coronavirus, I am reminded of the words of America’s great human rights champion, Martin Luther King Jr. In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, King wrote “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states”.

King’s words have turned from symbolism and aspiration to reality in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic. His words were written during another trying period in history – the fight for civil rights in America. At that time the effort to bring equality to all, in spite of societal and state identities and differences, appeared to be faltering.  In his famous letter, King also wrote: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly”.  He could not, therefore, “sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happen[ed] in Birmingham”.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A Christian preacher who had studied the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, King was responding to Christian leaders who had tried to persuade him to delay, if not cease, his non-violent movement to end racial segregation as contributing to America’s divisions. King saw the very foundation of America to be equality – the only social condition under which democracy can be legitimate. Its realization could not be contingent on better and saner times. After all, the Declaration of Independence  enshrined in the conscience of the American people that “all men are created equal”.

Interrelatedness and equality, conceptualized in their most positive sense, have been given their most profound and forceful expression in the current pandemic. People everywhere have shown themselves to be their brothers and sisters’ keepers. Individuals in the United States and elsewhere are not equal in their socio-economic conditions and health care provisions. However, they are equal in their fight against this contagious disease. The world’s peoples, forced into isolation and inward reflection, are compelled to see their common fate and interrelatedness. They are pulled together to face a common enemy, and the current condition of vulnerability is shared universally.

Illness does not discriminate amongst members of the human race. There is no black or white, brown or yellow. There are no geopolitical or ideological boundaries, no East vs. West, no North vs. South, no Communism vs. Democracy.

The world has been compelled into a new awakening, a new appreciation for the sanctity of human life. However powerless and separate we may be individually, we take comfort in the resilience and strength of the collective – our interrelatedness, our interdependence. There is greatness in our capacity to serve humanity individually and collectively. True greatness, said Reverend King, is determined by service.  Whoever was to pronounce his eulogy when the time came, said King, let it be said that he “tried to serve humanity”.

We have the capacity as human beings to do extraordinary things in critical moments in history. Humankind’s indomitable spirit has many times before met immense challenges of famine, disease and conflict. It has been in such existentialist periods that humanity comes to recognize its universal commonality and acts together to confront the natural destructiveness of the moment. An indomitable human spirit grounded in the realization of a common condition moves society forward.

In the absence of a vaccine to combat COVID-19, we turn to effective treatment and vital testing. And despite the many glitches in sharing these ameliorations, there is no doubt that throughout the world the idea of helping others is the ethical and moral response. Our very survival as a civilized species depends on underlying deep human and moral commitments – the commitments that depend first and foremost on our common human vulnerability, our common humanity and our best traditions of acting together, with hope and resolve, to strive for the best for all.

Our foundational sense of equality and our wonderful human instinct to understand the urgency of helping each other allow us to recognize our equal right to mercy and care when faced with destruction. Dr. King’s call for justice was based on humanity’s moral core – that we are all due equal regard and equal treatment. He understood that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

The collective efforts of our front-line brothers and sisters illuminate what it means to be human. These individuals are the saviors of our time—physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, administrators, clerks, restaurant staff, food producers, police, transportation personnel and others. They are in fact the true wealth of the world’s nations. That thousands of retired health care workers and students have responded to calls to help in the fight against the virus, such as in the United States, Italy and England, is a testament to their commitment to humanity. And where that has not been the case, it is the exception rather than the rule; and not without mitigating circumstances.

As we strive for (relative) immunity to the virus, we have come to see that financial affluence and the superpower status of certain nation states are not without limitations. The coronavirus cases and death toll chronicled by Johns Hopkins University demonstrate unequivocally the limitations of technological developments and medical science. This is so despite the current best efforts of all concerned, even in the most advanced industrial societies.

Despite the lack of a vaccine at this time, front-line servers continue to display amazing courage as they protect our health and food safety in the battle to prevent the coronavirus from decimating human populations. The mission of our front-line brothers and sisters becomes more meaningful with the realization of how unprepared or underprepared many cities and countries are to contain and arrest the virus relatively expeditiously.

The plain truth is that the loss of even one life is too many. Unfortunately, the exigencies of access to personal protective equipment and ventilators have placed unfair ethical burdens and responsibilities on medical personnel. In certain instances, they have had to take decisions on priority in treatment. In this context, with the comorbidities prevalent amongst the African-American population, the higher rates of loss of life in this group are also revealing – and challenging.