A photo illustration by Jernej Furman via Flickr.

One month after I became an American, in March, I woke up in the free world in a state of lockdown. I was not the one who had committed the crime. But an atrocious lack of accountability for this crime means we are all paying.

I am a neurologist with a public health background based in Cambridge, and so proud to be a part of a country that is based on democratic values – ones that makes America exceptional, including the right to free speech. It is due to that pride that I speak about a public health crisis unfolding around me without constraints, including facets that are deeply personal. The cause of this crisis has been called a “foreign virus,” but let me be clear, the lack of preparedness, the callous disregard for the safety of physicians and other health care workers and the continuous denial of the impact of the virus is a U.S. problem: We have not taken responsibility for our failures in handling the Covid-19 pandemic, and now we have a disaster on our hands.

To better understand the gaps in our strategy, we need only to look at global examples of how to handle this correctly.

Why don’t we have enough testing for Covid-19? The South Korean company Seegene developed and approved a testing kit within days of identifying the first Covid-19 patient, extending testing capabilities for more than a million people within a week. This test was offered to our federal Food and Drug Administration, but it declined approval. Only when America was several weeks behind, with New York in utter chaos, and only once Thermo Fisher (a U.S. company) partnered with Seegene did the president call South Korea to assure them FDA approval for the test would occur immediately. This delay cost lives and distress beyond measure, leading to our use parking lots for testing with tests that did not exist in adequate numbers. Is this the type of American exceptionalism we want?

Why don’t we have adequate personal protective equipment for our health care workers and ventilators for our patients? The federal Defense Production Act was not invoked until March 20, and is still not being enforced to its full extent to manufacture more N95 masks and other PPE. This is not a minor issue, and for me as a health care worker is another one that is deeply personal. The lives of health care workers depend on this, and the lives of patients in hospitals. It should be noted that Germany wouldn’t allow health care workers to see patients suspected of Covid-19 infections until there was an adequate supply of personal protective equipment. But in the United States we allow health care workers to wear trash bags, and until someone dies there is but a semi-outcry. Is this more of our American exceptionalism?

Why don’t we have proper lockdown measures and tracking processes? We have the Googles and the Apples of the world, yet no proper digital tracking system for Covid-19. South Korea and Taiwan were able to implement high-tech solutions while maintaining privacy and exercising social responsibility. Apple donating 10 million masks (which cost less than $1 each) while getting billions in tax breaks is hardly stepping up. Our American exceptionalism doesn’t include an exceptional tracking and containing system, or donations commensurate to the immense problem we face.

This is not a partisan issue; the only two sides that matter are life and death, and we need to choose life. Although the overall death rate from Covid-19 is low, it is more likely to kill someone who has it compared with diseases such as the flu. For the benefit of the numerically inclined, a death rate of 0.2 percent in 30- to 44-year-olds is anywhere from 20 to 200 times the baseline mortality rate for this age group. These deaths are preventable, and exponential risk that could have been prevented is not acceptable. As physicians, we don’t need appreciation from others, because our job is to help people, but that is also why it’s important to note that when we speak about death rates, they are about people, not numbers. We have been dehumanizing the “other” for so long; how can we not see the humanity in ourselves?

These are deficits in our public health infrastructure and overall health care system. This catastrophe, which is compromising the lives of health care providers and the people we care for, is a reason to organize and stand up to demand a health system that cares for people, not profits. We are losing our lives while imprisoned in fear of Covid-19, seeing no happiness on the horizon, and we need to reclaim our exceptionalism and define our future. The concept of democracy requires a shared responsibility, and we need to act now: All health care workers need to reach out to their elected officials to demand our constitutional right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – a right being violated every time we go to work in an unsafe environment without proper PPE, every time a patient dies because there isn’t a ventilator and frankly, every time another person, especially a health care provider, gets infected with Covid-19 because of inadequate measures from the outset.

While my work in the health care sector does not put me full-time in a hospital environment, this does not mean I will accept the poor working conditions and facilities in hospitals. Physicians take an oath to do no harm, not to die in the line of duty; we need to engage and advocate for the safety of health care providers upon which all society depends.

Becoming an American was a turning point in my life that came with a right to vote and to be a part of the democratic process. I’m exercising my democratic rights, just as this fiasco mandates that all of us exercise our rights as Americans and as citizens of the human race to battle this pandemic effectively and intelligently. To defeat Covid-19, democracy cannot be deferred anymore. Our very lives depend on it.


Sana Syed is senior medical director at Sanofi Genzyme, an assistant professor of neurology at Tufts Medical Center and a member of Harvard Women in Defense, Diplomacy and Development.

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