Americans are waiting eagerly for a life-saving vaccine to address the scourge of the Coronavirus epidemic which has claimed more than 125,000 lives and which has turned our world upside down. We know that vaccines have been responsible for the successful treatment, and in some cases, the eradication of deadly and debilitating diseases.
Evidence exists that the Chinese employed smallpox inoculation as early as 1000 CE. In 1796 Edward Jenner’s early innovations eventually resulted in the eradication of smallpox. Scientists worked for years to develop vaccines which liberated us from the effects of rabies, diphtheria, tetanus, anthrax, cholera, plague, typhoid, tuberculosis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and other devastating health threats.
For all of these scientific successes there still remain other life-threatening conditions like AIDS in desperate need of a vaccine. Though the work continues our hopes remain high that successful vaccines will one day be available for every disease, disorder and condition that kill so many of us each year.
And yet Americans are afflicted with a rapidly spreading disease for which no vaccine will ever be discovered. A disease so insidious that it appears in the open for all to see as well as in the darkest of private places where it spreads virulently hiding in plain sight. A disease that sometimes kills bodies but always kills souls. And it is a disease that cannot be found in medical journals nor studied or taught in medical schools. A disease which is discussed every day in homes, offices, places of play, places of worship and in our varied media outlets.
We all know about it. Most of us recognize it as a genuine threat. But few want to address it for what it is or even name it. But I’ll name it right here and right now. This dreadful disease is ISM. Not a name you immediately recognize but with some quick prompts you’ll know the various versions of ISM.
Racism…Ageism…Ableism…Heterosexism…Misogynism…Sexism… Classism…Vigilantism…Antisemitism…these are just a few of our country’s underlying conditions of hate and discrimination that should be recognized as a national public health epidemic that is eating away at the body of our republic. They are as toxic and lethal as any infectious disease. They are slowly eating away at our values and our morals. And yet they are not to be found in any catalog of diseases or conditions physicians and clinicians use to identify and classify threats to our health.
It’s not as though we haven’t passed laws and even amended our Constitution to attempt to ensure equal rights for all. In fact we’ve done it a lot and we keep on doing it but somehow we haven’t been able to eradicate all of the ISM’s that afflict us and which cause so much pain and even death.
- In 1863 we enacted the Emancipation Proclamation and two years later in 1865 we passed the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery.
- In 1920 we passed the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote.
- In 1964 we passed the Civil Rights Act and the next year in 1965 the Voting Rights Act was enacted.
- Title IX became law in 1972 assuring that there would be no discrimination based on sex in any Federally funded activity.
- The Fair Housing Act passed in 1988.
- In 1990 the Americans With Disabilities Act became the law of the land.
For all of these and other noble attempts which Congress has passed to protect the civil rights of all Americans and eliminate discrimination we continue to see these the rights and privileges bestowed on every citizen shredded every day. The laws haven’t wiped out the ISM’s for one reason and one reason only – you cannot legislate morality, ethical behavior, and inclusion. Laws alone will not wipe out prejudice, bias, bigotry and intolerance. It is just not possible to punish people into submission and force them to embrace fairness, equality and justice for all. You cannot legislate morality.
ISM’s have been a divisive disease afflicting our nation from the time of our founding. And as America is about to celebrate its 244th birthday it is not enough to say what has been said so often: “We have problems and challenges but we have made so much progress.” That may be true but it is awfully much like damning the problem with faint enthusiasm.
This year as we celebrate our Independence Day holiday, instead of igniting fireworks we should commit to igniting an unprecedented spirit of activism and advocacy toward the goal of wiping out the insidious disease that are the ISM’s spreading virulently throughout our society.
We know that unlike so many other diseases, these ISM’s are not congenital. We are not born with hatred, discrimination, or bias. These are learned conditions. They are taught and modeled by family, friends and neighbors. And worse yet, the worst behaviors and instincts pour out of the words and actions of our nation’s elected leaders.
The diseases that are the ISM’s that infect our society will not be conquered by a vaccine, or therapeutics, or surgery. They can’t be prayed away. And they won’t be eliminated by laws, rules and policies. Only through an active, consistent, pervasive, and exhaustive effort to change our national ethos will we make the progress we need.
The events of 2020 be they political, economic, race-related, or resulting from the pandemic will hopefully take us to a national tipping point which, like most critically important causes, makes advances when Americans of good faith and good will unite around an agenda. The progress we have made throughout our history by grassroots activism helped free the slaves, enabled women to vote, broke barriers to employment, education and housing and moved the needle closer toward the goal of making this a more perfect union.
Let each of us ignite the fire in our bellies and the justice in our hearts to conquer all the ISM’s that keep us from being a healthy America.