By Drs. John Austin Lee and Amita Sudhir
On a normal day in our emergency department in Charlottesville, we see patients from all over the world.
Despite the fact that we do not practice medicine in a large metropolis, we are constantly reminded of the fact that we are part of a global community. Language translation is as essential as a stethoscope in the modern emergency department, and cultural competency to us means understanding the needs of a farmer who has lived her whole life in Virginia, as well as the Afghan child who arrived yesterday on a Special Immigrant Visa.
Failing to recognize that we belong to this global community has a significant cost. Some of the disruption we are experiencing today due to COVID-19 could have been ameliorated if we had not dismissed previous novel coronaviruses — MERS and SARS — as isolated regional outbreaks. Hindsight lends clarity, but the emergence of a pandemic was not wholly unexpected, and yet we failed to acknowledge how deeply we could be affected by it.
The current administration has been lowering its support of domestic and international health initiatives over several years; further decreasing support for international health care now is unconscionable. As a global leader, the United States needs to step up in supporting governments and health systems around the world in efforts to control this outbreak and return to our new-normal as soon as possible. Not only is it the morally right thing to do, but this outbreak will not be contained without a concerted global effort.
It is not just the need for medical aid and logistical support that is paramount at a time like this. Issues around food insecurity are magnified in places where subsistence living is now inhibited by isolation measures. Furthermore, in countries whose governments suppress free speech at the best of times, physical spacing and lockdowns provide opportunities to expand abuses on human rights. We must remember that compassion, free speech and the American way of life can only continue to exist for us if we support these values across the globe.
President Donald Trump’s announcement that he is suspending funding to the World Health Organization is jarring to us here in Charlottesville; what we do in our emergency room dovetails with the entire global community. This announcement strikes at the heart of who we are as medical providers in a globalized world. As we weigh how much, or whether, to help other parts of the world in the fight against COVID-19, we have to remember that the actions that we take or do not take today may have severe downstream consequences..
We do not exist in a vacuum; our lives, more than ever, are tied to those of people at the farthest reaches of a map. It is clear that ignoring the plight of others around the world will have dire consequences for us in the United States. Without a concerted, worldwide effort to fight coronavirus in every corner of the globe, this virus will continue to circulate and recirculate through the web of humanity that connects us all. Without a global recognition of and action on the complex factors that contribute to human health, and the need to continue to support them, the next virus may overwhelm us, even if this one does not.
Dr. Amita Sudhir is an associate professor and the residency program director in the University of Virginia Department of Emergency Medicine. Dr. John Austin Lee is a chief resident in emergency medicine at the University of Virginia, and is an incoming fellow in global emergency medicine at Brown University.