We all called him Jacob. He was a gentle soul, a true gentleman. He also loved his birth country Ghana, hypertension research and golf. When the news of Tiger Woods accident was shown all over the news yesterday, Jacob came to mind. He fiercely loved Tiger Woods and would have given anything I am sure to be in his presence. Now that would never happen, because Jacob, a renowned hypertension researcher in Ghana and my dear colleague, mentor and principal investigator for my Ghana grant passed away from COVID-19 last year. He is survived by his wife and three children. I helped to coordinate a Lancet Obituary about his passing that you can read here (Dr. Jacob Plange-Rhule). What people never got to read and still haven’t read is my story of how I met Jacob, of how he mentored me when I returned to academia and how he made me fall in love with Ghana. Dr. Jacob was a true cultural bearer for all things Ghana for me and hypertension research. He is sorely missed.
When the pandemic of 1918 occurred, there were no gaze from people of color. No black stories were told. No Hispanic stories either. Yet that communities of color bear and continue to bear the burden of excess deaths from health disparities are well understood. Excess deaths have been occurring among black people in the prime of their life, over the course of a century. In a historical insight on the 1918 pandemic for the ongoing pandemic, Dr. Lakshmi Krishna shared how 1918 pandemic revealed critical structural inequities in health for people of colors that continues till this day. One thing that stood out for me in her report was how community centered and internal solutions from trusted sources were used to counter the veracity and benevolence of white responses to Black people’s plight during the pandemic. Still, this was a pandemic with shockingly spare accounts of the black experiences. Not from the point of view of illness or even disease, but from the lens of communal effort and activism, the profound engagement with health, all with a spirit of community resilience that helped to improve the health and lives of people of color. Now enter COVID-19 pandemic. That the pandemic continues to lead to disparate health outcomes in communities of color is now common knowledge. More than 500,000 Americans have died from the disease at the time of this writing and 18% of COVID deaths are from African Americans and 16% from Hispanic Americans according to a recent report from the COVID Tracking Project.
One benefit of the current era compared to the 1918 pandemic is our ability to collect more robust data. However, one critical thing lacking are the stories behind the data. Stories behind the life experiences of every death. Stories for example of Elizabeth R. Duff, the first black woman to drive a city bus in Nashville Tennessee. She was 72 years old at the time of her death. Not only did she endure sexism and racism being at the frontlines of changing gender and color barriers, but she was cool, calm, but stern while doing so. Along with her three children, she is survived by her husband, 16 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Then there is the story of Honorable Isidore Torres, the first trail-blazing Hispanic Judge in Wayne County, Michigan who died at the age of 73. Known as a fearless fighter of civil rights and equality, Honorable Torres ‘was known for the respect he showed attorneys by carefully reading their pleadings, and also for his sense of humor.’ He is survived his wife and three children.
Every COVID death has a story. Every single data point has an experience worth retelling for the past, present and future. Our lives seems to dominated by information on the data, with rising death counts being reviewed and discussed over and over again as if there were no humanity, no stories behind the data points. I have only shared three to illustrate my point, my dear mentor Jacob, the first Black woman driver in Nashville, Elizabeth and the first Hispanic Judge in Wayne county Michigan, Isidore. We have lost and continue to lose prominent culture-bearers such as these three. My goal is to ensure that these stories are told. For they are our guide, and without a recognition of the humanity behind the numbers, then as a generation, even if we survive the pandemic, we are blind.