A woman is tested for COVID-19 in a parking lot in Richmond where the health department set up a temporary walk-up testing center. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Tram Nguyen

Part of the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors is “first, do no harm.” As a doctor, Gov. Ralph Northam is well aware of this health care principle. However, the cries of business leaders and Virginians who have the privilege to stay at home seem to be overtaking this solemn vow. With the governor’s decision to reopen the state for business in phases that may begin as early as May 15, he is potentially writing a death sentence for some Virginians that could be readily avoided.

Allowing businesses to reopen too quickly will force employees to make a literal life or death decision — either return to work and put themselves and their family members at risk by being exposed to the public, or refuse to work and thereby forfeit any right to unemployment claims and lose their income.

This pandemic has exposed the systemic inequities in American society  already, too many workers find themselves on the frontlines of a health care crisis without adequate protections or compensation. Many of these workers don’t have access to tests nor basic health care coverage. Rather than address these issues or explore ways to make real change, instead, allowing Virginia to reopen businesses, even in a phased way, is upholding the systematic issues relating to health care, minimum wage and housing issues present in our society.

African Americans are dying in disproportionate numbers due to the pandemic — in the Richmond area, the overwhelming majority of COVID-19 related deaths have been African American. People of color are more likely to be exposed because they are more likely to hold the essential jobs that enable others to stay home and protect themselves.

The Hispanic/Latino communities are also extremely vulnerable to the pandemic. For example, in Alexandria, 39% of positive cases of COVID-19 and 38% of COVID-19 hospitalizations are Hispanic/Latino, yet they only comprise 17% of the population. The Chirilagua neighborhood of Alexandria, the heart of the Latino community, is among the hardest hit, with at least 50 families suffering from the virus. Many immigrants are uninsured, and without access to quality and affordable health care they may not obtain medical care.

In short, following the lead of states like Georgia to lift the stay-at-home orders, even in phases is dangerous. According to The Atlantic, “public health officials broadly agree that reopening businesses — especially those that require close contact — in places where the virus has already spread will kill people.” Are we really willing to risk the lives of our fellow Virginians for the sake of the economy? Virginia may have ranked No. 1 as the best state for businesses, but how important is that ranking if it means putting the lives of our neighbors at risk? 

Let’s be clear about one thing — reopening does not mean that the threat of the virus no longer exists; it simply means that there is a hospital bed ready for you should you get sick. That is no consolation for uninsured or underinsured Virginians, or for those who have to choose between taking care of their health, paying their rent, or putting food on the table.

Many leaders have outlined a plan for reopening that includes criteria such as a decline in positive cases, hospitalizations, and/or death. That does not go far enough.

The move to reopen should also include providing those with little or no health insurance access to health care facilities and reliable medical treatments that are affordable, culturally-sensitive, and are considerate of language accessibility. Until we can keep our most vulnerable safe and cared for, Governor Northam must reconsider his premature reopening. Virginia should be a welcoming place for all of us, not a place where some of us are dispensable.

Tram Nguyen is a co-executive director of New Virginia Majority.