In September 1963, there was a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his eulogy for three little girls who had died in the explosion.
“There is an amazing democracy about death,” Dr. King said.
Those words reverberate fiercely today as we witness over 3,000 deaths every day in American from COVID-19. The total 394,000 deaths from COVID-19 are a grim example of undemocratic deaths that have magnified the racial and socioeconomic healthcare disparities in the country.
“Of all forms of discrimination and inequalities, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman. I see no alternative to direct action and creative nonviolence to raise the conscience of the nation,” Dr. King said during the Medical Committee for Human Rights convention in Chicago in 1966.
This requires action from the medical community. A lot of mistrust in medical systems exists in minority communities because of a government study that left black men untreated for syphilis for decades, starting in the 1930s.
To increase vaccination rates in black and Hispanic communities, the medical community should acknowledge and address these concerns that a Tuskegee will never ever happen again. This action will also require a joint collaboration with faith leaders. Vaccination campaigns have long inspired collaboration between religious and medical institutions and communities.
When Central America was getting ravaged internal political chaos and civil wars, Catholic Church officials were very instrumental in brokering ceasefires so that children could be immunized. Muslim leaders were on the forefront in life-saving vaccination educational campaigns in Indonesia.
"Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase," Dr. King said.
We often do not see the potential health impact, beneficial or harmful, of the choices we make until later on when it is unfortunately too late to reverse the decisions we made.
Investing in a healthy, preventive lifestyle with focus on primary preventive healthcare measures requires faith and optimism that they will ultimately benefit you in the future.
This is why religious communities especially minority faith leaders can and should be an integral part of this national effort to educate about the importance of COVID-19 vaccines. The truth is that there is a lot in common between public health vaccination campaigns and theology.
A strong positive connection running from faith to immunization is the common value major faiths place on life, health, well-being, welfare, equity, and the prevention of illness and suffering, particularly for the neglected, the blameless and underserved population.
Vaccination is a moral imperative. This is a sentiment shared not only by medical professionals but many religious leaders too. Any objections stemming from cultural, social, or political factors can be detrimental and harmful. Ever since the advent of the modern age, the mainstream religious or ethical stance has always been pro-immunization.
“Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love,” Dr. King said two months before he was slain.
This is the pure and unadulterated crux of service. It is what inspires us and motivates us to serve. MLK recognized early on that the only weapons we needed to serve and move society forward were grace and love.
The only effective way to avoid the needless deaths from this viral pandemic accelerated by the silent violence of poverty, misinformation and indifference is to participate in and educate about the vaccination campaigns.
Getting vaccinated, pressing urgently to protect each family member, friend, stranger, patient and person with the COVID-19 vaccination is a great way to honor his call to action. Everybody can do it. Everybody can serve.
"Life's most persistent and urgent question is,” Dr. King said in Montgomery, Alabama in 1957, “What are you doing for others?"
This has been the most somber lesson from this pandemic. That my actions, my handwashing, my wearing a mask, my social distancing impacts my family and circles, my friends and their circles, my colleagues and their circles. It impacts my society. “Are you contributing, educating and informing others about the importance of public health and vaccination measures” is the most persistent and urgent question today.
This is a tumultuous time we are living in and many healthcare decisions have been corrupted by external political factors that would rather see divisions than unity. To defeat this virus, together, we cannot be afraid of learning from one another and having honest discussions about our similarities and differences.
"We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools,” Dr. King said in 1964.
Like the virus which has killed over two million people globally, we should see past gender, skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomics, political or religious affiliations and “infect” each other with the spirit of service for others, especially the service of public health.
This is how we empower and strengthen our communities and commemorate the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Essex County is currently operating five sites open to all Newark residents who are eligible to receive a vaccine. Click here for more information.
Dr. Hamid Shaaban is the chief medical officer of Saint Michael's Medical Center in Newark.