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White coats, black lives: Hundreds of health professionals rally for racial equality

White coats, black lives: Hundreds of health professionals rally for racial equality


From the steps of the state Capitol facing State Street, Dr. Jasmine Zapata’s words echoed off nearby buildings late Saturday morning as she addressed a crowd of white-clad demonstrators.

“When George Floyd was on the ground — begging for his life, no oxygen flowing to his brain, his neck compressed — he cried out and said, ‘I can’t breathe,’” she said. “When he did that, every health care professional around the nation heard him, and that is why we are here today.”

White coats, black lives

Dr. Jasmine Zapata served as an advisor for the medical students who organized Saturday's kickoff event for White Coats 4 Black Lives in Downtown Madison.

Medical professionals were encouraged to wear their work clothes at White Coats 4 Black Lives, an event aimed at calling attention to racial bias and disparities in health care. Zapata, a pediatrician and assistant professor with UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, was among hundreds who looked the part in the rally and march around the Capitol.

The event was organized by the Madison chapter of the Student National Medical Association, a student-led organization focused on supporting minority medical students and underserved communities.

White coats, black lives

Baillie Frizell, a medical student at UW-Madison, helped organize the White Coats 4 Black Lives rally.

Several speakers argued that systemic racism represents as urgent a public health crisis as the coronavirus pandemic. Baillie Frizell, a medical student at UW-Madison and event coordinator for the Student National Medical Association, said the mission of White Coats 4 Black Lives “is to eliminate racial bias in the practice of medicine and recognize that racism is a threat to the health and well-being of people of color.”

In front of a mural depicting George Floyd and Malcolm X on the side of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, participants displayed signs reading “Nurses for Black Lives Matter,” “Stop killing my patients“ and “White supremacy is a pandemic.” Almost all participants wore masks, but social distancing was poorly maintained in the center of the crowd.

Speakers included Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the state Bureau of Communicable Disease. He said the spread of COVID-19 has “shown us that social inequalities beget health inequalities.”

“As of yesterday, we knew of at least 169 deaths from COVID-19 among black Wisconsin residents,” he said. “To break this down as an epidemiologist, that comes to about 43 deaths per 100,000 population. The rate of COVID-19 deaths among white residents is 9 per 100,000, which means that being black in Wisconsin increases your risk of dying from COVID-19 by 450%.”

Others drew a connection between COVID-19, a respiratory disease that often causes difficultly breathing, to the killing of Floyd. And being unable to intervene in such life-and-death situations is profoundly troubling to health care providers like Zapata.

“We didn’t make it there in time to save him,” she said. “That’s what we’re trained for — to save people. We didn’t make it there in time for George Floyd. But that’s why we’re here today, and we have the power now to save countless black lives in the future.”

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Howard Hardee is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has written extensively about government, natural disasters and forest health in northern California.

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