A Message on Fighting Social Injustice from UGHE Vice Chancellor Prof. Agnes Binagwaho
I hope you and your families are staying safe during this period of great uncertainty. The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic is now coupled with a worldwide fight to combat racial inequities, since the horrific murder of George Floyd and far too many others in the US (Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Sean Reed, and Breonna Taylor, just to name a very few). Their last breaths were hastened by a society that devalues them because of the color of their skin. But this is not new. The ills of racism and other forms of structural violence have caused pain for far too long. For more than 250 years, Black, Latinos, and Native Americans have been murdered simply because they are different, and even more so today, because of leaders who promote hatred and bigotry as well as the fear of the “others”.
I want to express my deep solidarity with all those who are feeling this pain across the world. I applaud those from all cities and countries, who have protested peacefully in the streets to advocate for lasting change as well as those who are assessing policies within their organizations or in health facilities to ensure they are moving towards a more just world. These tragic deaths and the violence that is directed toward those calling out these grave injustices by forces meant to protect have demonstrated the unacceptable truth that structural violence persists against Black people and minorities. It has reignited a passionate cry for justice that has been ignored for far too long. There is clearly a system with policies rooted in prejudice against Black and Brown communities that has permitted a level of brutality, corruption, and cover-ups that is reprehensible. It has created the justified fear within communities of being confronted by police. Unless this system is corrected, the cycles of extrajudicial murder followed by the angry cries of the silenced won’t stop.
It is not coincidental that these events are transpiring as the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the systemic injustices that have caused the virus to take a disproportionate toll on racial minorities. Well before COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd, there was evidence of a monstrous iceberg of these systemic failings that have violated the right to health among racial minorities, with only the tip of the iceberg exposed. Black Americans are more likely to face injustices including premature birth and death, maternal fatalities, poverty, unstable housing, and police brutality; all which affect the health of communities. For centuries, many Black Americans have not felt protected or safe in their own homes or on their streets. COVID-19 has unveiled these truths, long known by marginalized communities, to those who have not faced these issues personally. More and more, people of all backgrounds are finally starting to realize the size and magnitude of this iceberg, and the critical need for the entire system to be re-built.
At the University of Global Health Equity (UGHE), social justice is central to our mission. We understand that racism is a global health issue. Our students are trained to understand the connections between the root causes of inequity and access to good health. They learn to critically examine the institutional power and policy structures that exist at every level and to be advocates for those who are harmed by these inequities and are systematically disempowered or silenced.
We are also teaching our students to be leaders, because now more than ever, we need strong, compassionate leadership. We need leaders who actively fight for the vulnerable in society. We need leaders who build trust and solidarity with those who turn to them for help. We need these leaders to work with all global health leaders to reach the day when no one person or group of people will be left behind because each and every life will truly matter. We need to contribute to the creation of systems that hold these world leaders accountable for their actions so that the preventable loss of lives does not go unnoticed or uncorrected any longer.
It is indisputable that there are immense challenges that have caused much pain to our past. Yet, people around the world, who are learning about and standing up to fight the injustices that many have faced and continue to face, give me hope.
To end, I must also share some personal reflections of being a black woman who often travels to the US. I go to this vast, beautiful country to teach, for speaking engagements, and to visit my many wonderful friends and colleagues. But, I must admit that – because of the color of my skin – I do not feel safe if I am alone when I see members of the US police force. I believe that the majority of them are good people, dedicated to promoting safety in their communities, and that if needed, they would protect me and others. Yet, there is clearly a system that has cultivated this fear. Perception is everything, and unfortunately too many facts support this, so there must be correction, and the time is now.
Our world has finally awakened to say “enough is enough”, shouting this message from the north of Canada to the south of Chile, to Europe, the Middle East, Oceania, Africa, and Asia. Our world that is also being attacked by this coronavirus is screaming for social justice. Our world wants to breathe and is ready to stand in solidarity for a better life for all.
My thoughts are with you all as you continue to fight the injustices that exist in the world whether it is on the streets of US cities or other in countries, in policy spaces, and within our health facilities.
Prof. Agnes Binagwaho