I am afraid to take a walk. I am afraid to take the subway. I am afraid to drive to work. I am afraid, I am afraid, I am afraid. These are the statements that I have been hearing on a daily basis from many of my patients. Quiet, hardworking people of all ages and occupations hoping to put food on the table, educate their children and care for their parents are scared. Many of my colleagues, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, respiratory therapists and other health care workers have told me that they have been threatened on the streets. These are the same people who worked seven days a work during the COVID crisis, risking their lives and those of their families, to comfort and care for COVID patients. All of them lost patients to COVID, all lost co-workers to COVID and many lost family members to COVID. And how are they thanked? With words such as “China virus, kung flu”. These words of ignorance and hate spewed by irresponsible people let a bad genie out of the bottle by encouraging xenophobia and giving unwarranted legitimacy to the belief that people can be assumed to be virus carriers and therefore not be treated as human beings. We need to put the bad genie back in the bottle.
I ask myself how this can be happening in the United States, in New York? Senseless beatings with regular citizens just watching and keeping silent happened in Germany in the 1930s but they don’t happen here. Or do they? The recent increase in random, senseless, brutal attacks against Asian American is appalling and yet another example of systemic racism. This cannot be condoned or ignored. It must be condemned. Everyone must stand up to this and speak out. We must be upstanders, not bystanders. Martin Niemoller, a pastor in Nazi Germany, penned this famous quotation, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. Communities of color, communities of religions, LGBT communities, communities of law-abiding citizens, communities of decent human beings, now is the time to speak up and stand behind our neighbors and colleagues and say no to bigotry, hatred and violence.
If you witness a hate crime, speak up and call the police. If someone you know makes a racist statement, call them out on it. Our Asian-American friends and neighbors must be able live in their communities without fear. No one should be afraid to walk in the street, commute to work or send their children to school because of fear of retaliation. We must stand in solidarity with the Asian-American community. Silence is your consent to allow this unconscionable hate and violence to continue. Only those who speak up have the power to stop it. It is your choice to choose.
David Bernstein, MD, FAASLD, FACG, AGAF, FACP, is the vice chair of medicine for clinical trials and chief of hepatology at the Sandra Atlas Bass Center for Liver Diseases. He is also a professor of medicine and science education at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra-Northwell.