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MGH

Published On November 20, 2020

POLICY

A Roar in the Streets

Social unrest came on the coattails of the pandemic, and hospital workers rose to fight that battle, too.

By May 25, Americans were grieving the death of nearly 100,000 people from COVID-19. Yet another lost life—George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes—brought a parallel tragedy to light. The injustice drove thousands to fill the streets and triggered outrage that rippled across the world.

Medicine did not stay silent, and 11 days after Floyd’s death, several groups within MGH organized a “kneel-in” on the hospital’s Bulfinch Lawn. The area was filled with people in scrubs, white coats and suits—masked and physically distanced—holding signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “Racism is a Pandemic.”

The parallels between the protests in the streets and the fight going on inside the hospital were only too clear. People of color had been disproportionately hit by COVID-19, according to Joseph Betancourt, vice president and chief equity and inclusion officer at MGH. This was in no small part because systemic racism gives rise to low wages and lack of access to health care, which in turn put communities of color at higher risk during the outbreak. “We know that a virus like this does not discriminate,” Betancourt says, “but COVID-19 shone a bright light on these disparities and our inability to think about ourselves as a community.”

Leaning on one bent knee, the wet grass soaking through her scrubs, Marie Borgella, nursing director of MGH’s Bigelow 7 Medical Unit, fought back tears as she thought of the gesture’s dual meaning. “As a leader and a woman of color, I had to take a knee to pray for a better America,” she says. “The solidarity of people from every walk of life coming together was overwhelming.”

This was not the only time workers were called into action outside the hospital’s walls. On May 30, a crowd gathered outside the Massachusetts State House to protest the restrictions brought on by the pandemic. Infectious disease specialist Nesli Basgoz saw many people shouting and singing, while few wore masks or socially distanced. “I was concerned not only for their health, but for the health of their households and communities,” says Basgoz, a founder of Physicians for Policy Action, a group at MGH that advocates for policies that promote health and science. Basgoz spoke with several protesters, and explained that masks and distancing have been proved to save lives. Some listened politely, but most argued or walked away.

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First Image: Nesli Basgoz helps counter those protesting the lockdowns at the State House in Boston. Source: Boston Globe/Getty Images. All other images: The MGH community gathers on the Bulfinch Lawn to hold a vigil and kneel-in for George Floyd. Source: MGH photography.