Our Body Politic

Our Body Politic Presents: the Podcast "Into America" on Banned Books and the Trauma of Witnessing George Floyd’s Death, Plus a Special Roundtable on Covid

Episode Summary

Our Body Politic continues our month-long series 'Our Body Politic Presents' with 'Into America' - a podcast about being Black in America, told by people who have the most at stake. Host Trymaine Lee speaks with his 9-year-old daughter Nola and author and illustrator Jerry Craft about banned books and Critical Race Theory. Also, from Minneapolis, Cup Foods clerk Christopher Martin, witness to the murder of George Floyd, opens up to Trymaine about moving forward from trauma. On our weekly roundtable 'Sippin the Political Tea', Farai is joined by former Obama White House Health Policy Director Dr. Kavita Patel, and Dr. Bernard Ashby, Florida State Lead for the Committee to Protect Health Care. They examine the latest on COVID and Omicron, the impacts on mental health, and the Biden Harris administration's response.

Episode Notes

Recordings provided courtesy of the podcast Into America, from MSNBC and NBC News. https://link.chtbl.com/obvkRMCh?sid=obp

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya:

Hi, folks, we are so glad that you're listening to Our Body Politic. If you have time, please consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps other listeners find us and we read them for your feedback. We'd also love you to join in financially supporting the show if you're able. You can find out more at ourbodypolitic.com/donate. We are here for you, with you, and because of you. Thank you. This is Our Body Politic. I'm Farai Chideya. For the month of January, we're bringing you fresh voices from the podcasting world in our series, Our Body Politic Presents. Each week, you'll hear a different show take us on a journey of news, narrative and emotion. This week, we're featuring the work of Into America, a podcast about black life, by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, Trymaine Lee of MSNBC. Sometimes Lee takes us into his America, for example, interviewing the author of one of his nine year old daughter, Nola's, favorite books.

Farai Chideya:

Now, Nola loves the graphic novel, New Kid, about a black boy who goes to a wealthy, mostly white private school in New York City. It's based on the life of author Jerry Craft, and it's won awards, including the prestigious Newbery Medal, but New Kid was also attacked by people who wanted to ban the book, claiming it promoted critical race theory and Marxism. Here on Our Body Politic, we've covered banned books many times, and we will continue to. Here's an excerpt of Into America's episode. Take a look. It's in a banned book.

Jerry Craft:

Do you draw?

Nola:

I draw a little bit. I usually do tutorials on YouTube, but I do draw kind of.

Trymaine Lee:

This is my nine year old daughter, Nola, and on the other end of the Zoom call is the author and illustrator, Jerry Craft. He's sharing his screen and showing us how he draws the characters from his award winning graphic novel, New Kid.

Nola:

Oh yeah, I know what character this is.

Jerry Craft:

You only get one shot now.

Trymaine Lee:

Which one is it?

Nola:

It's Jordan.

Jerry Craft:

There you go.

Nola:

It's Jordan, yeah.

Jerry Craft:

Yep, you're absolutely right.

Nola:

Wow.

Trymaine Lee:

That's amazing. Jerry was drawing Jordan Banks, the main character in New Kid. The companion book that came out last year is called Class Act. I asked Nola if she had any questions about the characters.

Nola:

I have a question. What happened to Drew's parents?

Jerry Craft:

I never figured that out, because even in the first book, when he got into a little shoving match with Andy, I had him where he got suspended, and my own sons were so mad at me, that I actually had to change it.

Nola:

That's good. You should listen to your kids. For everyone out there-

Jerry Craft:

I do.

Nola:

Listen to your kids.

Jerry Craft:

I do.

Nola:

They're the truth speakers. Yes.

Jerry Craft:

They're the truth.

Nola:

Always remember that.

Jerry Craft:

There you go.

Trymaine Lee:

Always remember that. For months, I'd been seeing Jerry's book, New Kid. I thought about getting it for Nola, but wasn't sure she was quite old enough, but as I was wondering whether or not Nola was old enough, some parents had other concerns.

Speaker 5:

New at 6:00 tonight, campus controversy, a petition circulating over a scheduled guest speaker at one Katy ISD school.

Speaker 6:

That speaker is a children's book author, Jerry Craft, writes stories about African-American boys dealing with race issues in school.

Speaker 5:

So a group of Katy ISD parents is calling that critical race theory.

Trymaine Lee:

Earlier this fall, New Kid got swept up in the conservative uproar over teaching critical race theory in public education, even though the theory wasn't actually being taught. A group of parents in the Katy Independent School District of Texas started a petition to cancel an upcoming book event with Craft at one of the local elementary schools.

Speaker 5:

And it goes even further than that virtual visit being postponed today. I've just learned that those books have now been removed from the district's libraries, while Katy ISD reviews them.

Trymaine Lee:

Four of Craft's books have been included in a list of over 800 books being investigated by a Texas Republican lawmaker. Also on the list is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and How to Be an Anti-racist by Ibram X. Kendi. Many of the authors on the list are other people of color or LGBTQ plus. Now, there are important conversations to be had about what's appropriate for children to read and when, but when we start banning books, are we really having that conversation? I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. Today, we talk with author and illustrator, Jerry Craft, on the importance of creating black characters that he recognized and how it felt to have that experience stripped from the shelves.

Jerry Craft:

It's basically you can't tell those stories because those stories are, what, racist? But it's because of treatment like that that I make stories like this in the first place.

Trymaine Lee:

Author and illustrator, Jerry Craft, is 58 years old. We caught up with him at his home in Norwalk, Connecticut, but that's not where he's from originally.

Jerry Craft:

I was born in Harlem, grew up in the Washington Heights section of New York City, and just like my main character, Jordan Banks from New Kid, I wanted to be an artist.

Trymaine Lee:

Hmm, when you were coming up, were you seeing characters that looked like you? Were you seeing people that looked like they come from your community?

Jerry Craft:

No, almost never.

Trymaine Lee:

Hmm.

Jerry Craft:

Reading a book, to me, was punishment. I would rather clean my room, take out the garbage. I read Marvel comics, and in a lot of ways, I felt like I had more in common with Peter Parker, who was Spiderman, than I did with any black characters, because to me, even in the comic books, the black characters were sidekicks.

Trymaine Lee:

When he wrote New Kid, Jerry was able to tell the story of his own upbringing. He combined his personal anecdotes with the experiences of his sons, who are both in their early 20s now. That's where the character Jordan Banks comes in.

Jerry Craft:

So he is 12 years old. He wants to be an artist. His parents do not want him to be an artist, so they send him to a prestigious private school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, and now, as a light-skinned black kid with straight hair, light skin, he didn't look like the kids around his block, and now, he goes to Riverdale Academy Day School, where most of the kids are white, and it's a prestigious private school, so a lot of the families are pretty wealthy, and he's trying to fit in there, and I wanted it to have a lot of humor in it, because I think a lot of times, as African-Americans, we've developed such a sharp sense of humor, because that's our coping mechanism to deal with a lot of the other things that happen on the day to day level, and I think the big thing is I didn't want there to be one devastating thing.

Jerry Craft:

I think we're programmed that every time we see a black movie or a black TV show, a black book, that as soon as we like a character, something catastrophic is going to happen, and I did not want that. I wanted it to be like the little tiny things that we see on the day to day basis, as opposed to one destructive thing that just changes the plot of the entire book.

Trymaine Lee:

And usually, that's how it happens for black folks in everyday life, right? It's not a cross burning in your yard, it's the little fires, the little embers, the little cuts that you experience day to day, not some big cataclysmic thing all the time.

Jerry Craft:

Right, it's you go in the Costco and talking to one of the salespeople and someone cuts right in front of you like you don't exist. So those are the kinds of things Drew and Jordan, who are the two African-American characters, get called by the wrong name or they assume, they have assumptions. "Oh, Jordan, who do you live with? Just your mom." "No, I live with my mom and my dad." "You live with your dad?" Those little things, but just that they can add up to a lot.

Trymaine Lee:

New Kid was published in 2019 and it was a massive hit. A New York Times best seller, winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, and you know those gold medallions that you see on the covers of classic kids books? The giant Newbery Medal? New Kid was the first graphic novel to win that honor. Jerry was invited to give talks to schools all over the country, but when he had a virtual appearance scheduled at an elementary school outside of Houston, he got a cancellation notice.

Bonnie Anderson:

It is inappropriate instructional material. They are pointed at white children displaying microaggressions to children of color.

Trymaine Lee:

That's Bonnie Anderson, a white Texas parent, in an interview with the NBC News station in Houston. Anderson also said that your Jerry's books were promoting critical race theory and Marxism. The Katy Independent School District postponed the talk and Jerry's books were pulled from the school district libraries.

Jerry Craft:

I was shocked, and what I say to everyone, I did what most people did. I had to Google critical race theory and try to find out how I was teaching it.

Trymaine Lee:

You, yourself, you didn't know what it was?

Jerry Craft:

No.

Trymaine Lee:

Wow.

Jerry Craft:

I don't sit down and go, oh, this is what I'm going to do. My book is not instructional and it's not an academic book. It is loosely based on my life and my two sons' lives, and this still happens to me. I have gone to schools to do school visits and they thought I was there to fix the copier.

Trymaine Lee:

That's crazy.

Jerry Craft:

You know what I mean?

Trymaine Lee:

That's insane.

Jerry Craft:

What, so if I tell that story, those stories are, what, racist? When I'm talking about how I'm treated?

Trymaine Lee:

We reached out to the school district and they declined to comment, and the parent who made the complaint, Bonnie Anderson, did not respond to us. Here's more of her interview with Houston's NBC affiliate.

Bonnie Anderson:

The books don't come out and say we want white children to feel like oppressors, but that is absolutely what they will do.

Trymaine Lee:

That is a hell of a statement right there, about, again, a book that reflects your experience.

Jerry Craft:

Right, and that's the problem, is that that is not in the book.

Trymaine Lee:

Mm.

Jerry Craft:

If you don't want your specific kid to read it, a book, as a mom or a dad, you have every right to protect your kids, if you feel that they need protecting, but just because you don't want your kid to read it, that you take it away from everyone else's kid, then that's worse than what I'm accused of doing. You know what I mean?

Trymaine Lee:

After a formal review by the school district, Jerry's books were put back on the shelves, and the kids at the Texas Elementary School finally got to attend Jerry's virtual talk. He said it went great, and despite the whole ordeal, Jerry is trying to stay positive.

Jerry Craft:

If you had to sit down and think about everything that happens to you during the day, you might not ever leave the house.

Trymaine Lee:

Right, yeah.

Jerry Craft:

These kids are waiting for book three, which I'm working on now.

Trymaine Lee:

I'll tell you what, Jerry, you might have landed on some banned book lists, but where you're not banned is Into America, brother. Thank you, or my household. So thank you.

Jerry Craft:

Well, thank you. I appreciate that.

Farai Chideya:

That was an excerpt from the episode, Take a Look, it's in a Banned Book from the podcast Into America by MSNBC. Coming up next, more Into America. Welcome back to Our Body Politic and our month long series showcasing innovative podcasts. This week, Our Body Politic Presents features Into America from MSNBC, with award-winning host, Trymaine Lee. On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd walked into Cup Foods to purchase cigarettes. The clerk he bought them from was named Christopher Martin, and he was just 18 years old. Martin noticed that the $20 bill Floyd used was counterfeit and told his manager. That triggered the call to police that brought Officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd's neck outside the store until he was dead. A jury later found Chauvin guilty of murder. Christopher Martin has been living with the sadness, numbness and grief of this tragedy. Trymaine Lee and the Into America team take us deep into Martin's life and what it says about race and justice in their episode, After George Floyd.

Trymaine Lee:

To say that George Floyd's murder shook America would be an understatement. We watched his slow death unfold before our eyes, and we counted the minutes and the seconds that it took for a disgraced former cop to squeeze his life away, and it ached, but for nearly all of us, this aching, disturbing spectacle of police violence and black death was felt from a distance physically, geographically, and for those who don't know or love people like George Floyd or live in communities like his, it very well could have felt like peering into a far off universe, nothing like your own. In that way, we were all spectators, haunted by what we saw and what we felt, but distant spectators nonetheless. There were others who didn't have the privilege of distance, people who were there in Minneapolis on that terrible day last year, and saw it happen with their own eyes. During the trial of Floyd's murderer, Derek Chauvin, we heard from witness after witness who stood just feet away.

Speaker 8:

I stayed up, apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more.

Speaker 11:

I feel helpless. I don't have a mama either and I just [inaudible 00:15:20] him.

Mr. Frank:

And when you went out there, what did you see?

Christopher Martin:

I saw people yelling and screaming. I saw Derek with his knee on George's neck, on the ground. George was motionless, limp, and Chauvin seemed very... He was in a resting state, meaning he just rested his knee on his neck.

Trymaine Lee:

That last one was Christopher Martin. As an 18 year old clerk at the corner store, Cup Foods, Christopher took the counterfeit $20 bill from George Floyd that day, prompting that fateful 911 call that drew Floyd, Chauvin and a cast of reluctant witnesses together on May 25th, 2020. In surveillance footage played during the trial, Christopher paces back and forth, his hands on his head, sinking as Floyd lay prone and then motionless. It was an image the nation came to know Christopher by, but there's more to his story. He grew up in South Minneapolis, moved with his family into an apartment above the store just months earlier, and before that day, he was just a teenager with a cool little gig at the shop, who was trying to find his way in the world. But what he saw happen that day outside of Cup Foods would change him in ways he could have never imagined.

Christopher Martin:

The only way I got through it was God. I had to pray, and it would sometimes just be, God, I need you. I can't do this alone. And just sit there in silence.

Trymaine Lee:

I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. On this week's episode, we look toward the one year anniversary of George Floyd's death with a rare intimate conversation with Christopher Martin. We talk about his life before George Floyd, the trauma of that day, and how he's trying to move forward a year later. Chris Martin has spent the last year wrestling with his role that day. Here's what he told Good Morning America in the days after he testified.

Christopher Martin:

Not only am I the contributing factor, I'm like the big domino that fell, and then, now, all the small dominoes are just scattered.

Trymaine Lee:

When I talk to Chris, he's wearing a black hoodie, leaning back into a couch in the place he shares with his mom and sister. Did you have a sense of how seismic the shift in your life would be even then? Did you notice that something was big happening?

Christopher Martin:

In that moment, I knew it was a big deal, because someone had just gotten their life taken away, but I guess, in my mind, I didn't really connect the fact that everyone was recording. So what scared the crap out of me was when I went home and I get on TikTok and there's just a TikTok and I'm in it.

Trymaine Lee:

Wow.

Christopher Martin:

And it's just millions of views and I'm just like, this is insane, and then the next day, going back home, obviously it's where I live, and there's thousands of people on the block. It's literally crowded. You can barely even walk. Everyone's honking. I had never seen anything like it. But yeah, I had no idea it was going to be on this big of a scale.

Trymaine Lee:

What was going through your mind when you go on a TikTok and you see this? What is your first reaction? What were your first thoughts?

Christopher Martin:

I was shocked, because of how many views it had gotten, but at that same moment, I was a little bit afraid, because I was wondering if I would get any backlash, being as I'm the one that took the bill and all those other things.

Trymaine Lee:

Backlash from who?

Christopher Martin:

Just from anyone, mostly just social media backlash.

Trymaine Lee:

The craziest thing, man, is you just went to work one day, just went to work, and then everything, just the world cracked open. Does it feel like that, like you've been living in some sort of alternate shaken world since?

Christopher Martin:

No, not really, but I'll be honest, when I think about that day and how it made me feel, I think I am a lot more traumatized than I realize, because I can't really pinpoint a feeling on it, if that makes any sense.

Trymaine Lee:

Mm.

Christopher Martin:

My mind just blocks it out. It won't let me access certain parts of that day, and I also had never seen him in Cup Foods. So usually, I'm pretty familiar with who comes in and out because I work cashier, but that was the first time I had seen him and the first time I had talked to him.

Trymaine Lee:

Hmm.

Christopher Martin:

And unfortunately, the last, but I just remember taking the bill from him, telling my boss, and then going back outside with my hand on my head, and honestly, I was feeling very helpless and panicky, and also, when I had to talk to one of my bosses after it happened, I literally had a panic attack while I was talking to him about it. He, to this day, doesn't even know that I did. It just happened, where my heart is just beating through my chest, and I've never fainted from a panic attack, but usually, when it happened, my heart beats through my chest and I just can't function.

Trymaine Lee:

For you, as you were wrestling with the reality of what went down, what was the hardest part for you?

Christopher Martin:

I think the hardest part for me was when I would sit back and think of what if. That part really haunted me, because obviously no one in the store knew that he would lose his life, but it's just the simple fact of what if I would have not said anything and just taken the bill and then paid for it later on?

Trymaine Lee:

Hmm.

Christopher Martin:

Or what if I had just told them to leave, drive away, go home or whatever. There's so many what ifs in this situation. It just drives you crazy because you know you can never go back in time and change it, but in my mind, when I think of a what if, I play it out and try to see what would happen.

Trymaine Lee:

Hmm.

Christopher Martin:

It's kind of makes me feel insane at that point.

Trymaine Lee:

You've talked about you in that moment as the big domino, and then it tipped and scattered all the small dominoes and we saw everything fall after that. Looking back a year later, how do you assess your space in that, in the big domino? Do you still see yourself that way or now, in hindsight, do you see you things a little differently?

Christopher Martin:

I definitely do see things a little differently. I'd probably say I'm more the medium size domino, and then also, I tried a few times to just stop all the other ones from falling, if that makes any sense. I went off course purposefully, but I definitely, over time, and the more I analyze the situation, I feel less and less guilty about it. In that moment, when my hands were over my head and I was looking at the whole scene, it felt like something supernatural was at work that I couldn't control, and I thought it was evil obviously. What was happening to George was just unexplainable, but I kept thinking in my head, as I said before, what if? What if I just go out there and move this dude or try to fight him?

Trymaine Lee:

Hmm.

Christopher Martin:

Thoughts like that, where it was just like, I wasn't even too much thinking about white and black. I was more thinking of this is a human, first and foremost. Secondly, it's a father. That's what I was thinking about more than anything, because I actually had to grow up without my father, and so my first thought went straight to his kids. I'm like, wow, this is...

Trymaine Lee:

Hmm.

Christopher Martin:

I don't even... There's not a word for it. Growing up in an African-American household without a father creates a lot of arguments, problems, and there's not enough structure. So that's always hard to deal with.

Trymaine Lee:

We're back with Christopher Martin, the store clerk who witnessed Derek Chauvin murder George Floyd nearly one year ago. Floyd's death prompted cause for police reform on a scale we haven't seen in decades. I ask Chris whether his views of policing have changed at all over the past year.

Christopher Martin:

Well, actually, before the George Floyd incident, I never have ever supported police in any way, shape or form, but I have, in my mind, I've always known that obviously not all of them are bad, but I've never really liked them, supported them, wanted to talk to them, wanted anything to do with police. I actually said that in my FBI interview, because they subpoenaed me and I didn't want to do it, and then they were like, "Okay, well, if you don't talk to us, then you're going to have to come into court," and I was like, wow. So then I talked to them and I was like, "Yeah, I don't want to talk to police because I don't trust you. The system is rigged against us." When comes to situations like that with the police, I've actually seen with my own eyes my older brother get slammed against the wall because he told the police officer not to touch me, and that was when I was 13.

Christopher Martin:

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was walking outside my front door. I had my soccer bag. In the soccer bag was my water bottle and my cleats and my shin guards, and I had all my soccer stuff on. I don't even remember why they were at our house. They were looking for something. But anyways, I go past the police officers and one of them's like, "Hey, hey, what's in the bag?" And my brother's like, "Don't touch my brother." And then he literally just slammed him against the wall, and I'm just like my heart's racing and I gave it to him and it's obviously my water bottle and cleats, and that, in itself, is just so uncalled for. I am 13 years old. At that point, I was maybe five foot tall, I don't know how tall, and you have to search my bag, and I'm walking out the front door. That's where it's like cops do not have the training they need at all.

Trymaine Lee:

When you heard that you were going to be called to court, what feelings were going through your mind?

Christopher Martin:

So actually, the prosecution called me up to see if I would do it. So a lot of the witnesses had the choice of whether or not to be on trial, and I actually chose to be on trial, and I wanted to tell the story from my point of view and just get it off my chest, but leading up to it, I wasn't thinking too much about it, because it had been my first time in court. I've never been arrested or anything like that, so I didn't know what it would've been like. When I got there though, I was so nervous.

Mr. Frank:

And raise your right hand.

Christopher Martin:

When the judge was like, "Spell your name," I felt like I was about to throw up.

Speaker 12:

State your full name and spell each of your names.

Christopher Martin:

Christopher Martin, C-H-R-I-S-T-O-P-H-E-R. Last name Martin. M-A-R-T-I-N.

Speaker 12:

Mr. Frank.

Mr. Frank:

Thank you, your honor.

Christopher Martin:

I was sweating bullets. My armpits were drenched.

Mr. Frank:

We saw you standing there with your hands on your head for a while, correct?

Christopher Martin:

Correct.

Mr. Frank:

What was going through your mind during that time period?

Christopher Martin:

Disbelief and guilt.

Mr. Frank:

Okay, why guilt?

Christopher Martin:

If I would've just not took the bill, this could have been avoided. Actually, during the first recess break, someone texted me and was like, "I'm watching you right now. You're doing so great." I was like, "What do you mean?"

Trymaine Lee:

Right.

Christopher Martin:

This is insane, and then, once the trial was over, my phone was ding central. I couldn't even get on my phone. It was ridiculous.

Trymaine Lee:

And after you leave the courtroom for the last time, what happened next?

Christopher Martin:

So I got on my phone, just to see what people were saying, and one of my close friends from high school was like, "Yo, you need to get on Twitter." I was like, "Why?" And he's like, "You're trending."

Trymaine Lee:

That's crazy.

Christopher Martin:

And I get on Twitter and I see this one person, I think I have the screenshot, and he said, "Christopher Martin's composure is extremely well," or some way he said it, the way he put it just made me really feel good on my inside. After I had saw that tweet, I think it was someone famous had said that I was extremely composed, I started crying. I started sobbing, and it was like a ugly cry. So I'm like, man. Like I said before, I couldn't pinpoint my emotion. So I don't know. I just cried.

Trymaine Lee:

So then the verdict is read. Chauvin is guilty on all three counts. We can call him a murderer, which we saw with our own eyes. What was that feeling like for you?

Christopher Martin:

Man, that was a different feeling, because I did not think he was going to get all three charges. I'm going to be brutally honest. I thought he was going to get the second worst thing, so to hear he got all three, I was like, God is good.

Trymaine Lee:

Yeah.

Christopher Martin:

That's all I could think. I'm like, yes, that's what we needed.

Trymaine Lee:

Did it feel like the page is turning? Did that signal the end of anything for you?

Christopher Martin:

Yes and no. Yes, because I feel like I did... The job is done. No, because I know I still have to talk about it going forward, and then George's brother said, "Derek may be in prison, but George is in the ground." So I feel like that's one thing that any witness and anyone that knows George Floyd, we'll have to take that to our graves, which really sucks, but that's just the way it is.

Trymaine Lee:

Yeah.

Christopher Martin:

But I do think a lot of people were saying on social media that this isn't even justice. This is just holding him accountable, and that was one thing where I felt stupid when I read that, because when I first heard that he was proven guilty, I was like, wow, justice, and then to read, no, this isn't justice, this is just holding him accountable, I was like, wow, that's a good point. It's a good thing I didn't say anything.

Trymaine Lee:

Wow.

Christopher Martin:

That's crazy.

Farai Chideya:

That was an excerpt from After George Floyd by the podcast Into America, covering black life politics and culture from MSNBC. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Trymaine Lee is the host. These episodes of Into America were produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Ellen Frankman, Max Jacobs, Joshua [Sirodiack 00:49:37], and Aisha Turner. You can listen to Into America, wherever you get your podcast. Next week, we will feature content from the podcast TransLash. Please join us.

Farai Chideya:

Each week on the show, we bring you a round table called Sipping the Political Tea, and joining me this week for a special round table on COVID and health is Dr. Kavita Patel, primary care physician, and former Obama White House health policy director. Hi, Dr. Patel.

Dr. Kavita Patel:

Hi, Farai, thanks for having me.

Farai Chideya:

So glad that you're with us, and we've also got Dr. Bernard Ashby, a Miami cardiologist and Florida state lead for the Committee to Protect Health Care. Welcome Dr. Ashby.

Dr. Bernard Ashby:

Hello, it's a pleasure to be here.

Farai Chideya:

So we're in year three of the pandemic and a lot of people have been depressed, scared, pushed to their limits. Addiction is up. Mental health crises are up and this is a holistic issue that's affecting families, schools, and individuals. So there are many transitions happening in how the response to the pandemic is panning out. The White House announced that they're going to be sending 400 million free N95 masks to pharmacies in other locations. Starting next week, they are also launching a website where Americans can request free at home COVID19 tests. I personally requested mine. There have been frustrations, however, about the timing of the administration's response. These measures might have been great during the holidays, when so many people were traveling and visiting other people. So Dr. Patel, you were an advisor in the Obama White House. What do you make of the response of the Biden-Harris administration and how we can think of it?

Dr. Kavita Patel:

Yeah, thanks for having me, and I'll be pretty transparent. It's the only way I can be. It is unfortunately a misstep, in the sense that this would've been better, not just three months ago, but candidly, many of us, and I think Dr. Ashby as well, were asking for these types of measures, tests that are available for Americans at home, masks and even actually better ventilation, which is still not being addressed in many buildings and schools around the country. We've been asking for this for going on about two years, and so it does feel a little bit like an umbrella in a hurricane, but I guess I'm glad that at least now we have something, a website running, some of the attention to this, because sadly, even if Omicron is the worst surge we've had so far, it's not the last.

Farai Chideya:

The US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, said on Sunday that Omicron hasn't peaked yet. From what I understand, there are some places which, regionally, may have peaked. Dr. Patel, what do you think about variants? And we have to think about it in some ways, but for those of us who aren't medical professionals, should we even be obsessed about what comes next? I don't know if we can help it, but there's nothing we can do.

Dr. Kavita Patel:

I don't think it's unnatural to ask what's next. We were all joking around. We're like, what's the Greek letter after Omicron? Because that's what we're going to...

Farai Chideya:

Yes, exactly.

Dr. Kavita Patel:

It's like pi. When do we get that ready? So a couple of things. If you follow the genetic arc of where we are from the original Wuhan strain to Omicron today, the numbers of mutations and actually how elegant these mutations are, the Omicron mutations are so elegant, elegant in a word truly where it predisposes Omicron to crowd out the ability of any of the other strains to grow and it replicates just so efficiently in the upper airways, compared to what we call the alveoli, the end part of the lungs, so to speak. That represents two years, maybe a little bit more, of this virus just being smart, and we need to be smarter, and it gets to, yes, there will be more variants, but I'm hoping that the next sets of variants will be met with a next generation Omicron, or at least variant specific vaccine that's updated. We know we need to do that, and then hopefully, over time, but it will probably take years, we will have this very... There won't be as much news about outbreaks.

Dr. Kavita Patel:

It's not even that it's endemic. I think we could get to an endemic status, meaning that this just becomes a virus that causes disease in a smaller group of people for different reasons than the way it is now, where it feels so arbitrary, everybody's getting infected even if vaccinated. So I think we will move to that point soon, hopefully after Omicron, but I don't know, but also, we will have, in addition to updated vaccines, we will have more oral therapeutics. We've been using them in our clinic. They're working. There's just not enough of them, and other therapeutics, which the President Trump had the earliest access to, but many Americans still don't, and so I do think that'll become a little more normal.

Farai Chideya:

Dr. Ashby, we talked a little bit with Dr. Patel about politics and how it affects people's responses. You are in Florida, and throughout the pandemic, your governor, Ron DeSantis, has taken pride in bucking COVID precautions. In early January, as Omicron was peaking, he urged asymptomatic Floridians to forego testing, and it was revealed he let almost 1 million COVID tests expire. So you're on the medical front lines in Florida. How have you seen all of this, in terms of leadership, play out?

Dr. Bernard Ashby:

See, I was in a good mood until you brought that up, and Dr. Patel, you know how I get turned up. Listen, DeSantis is the worst example of callousness and disregard for human life and how politics can become so just evil, to the point where you have individuals who are willing to blatantly lie, mischaracterize and lead folks in a direction that is actually to their own detriment, just for political gain, and that's exactly what we're seeing with DeSantis across the board. Not to mention the fact that he is capitalizing in every possible way from his pandemic, from the business of it, with regard to the therapeutics and funding his campaign at an astronomical level, to allocating a lot of the funds that are supposed to go to the general population, to large businesses.

Dr. Bernard Ashby:

And the monoclonal antibody therapy, for example. He's patting himself on the back for being one of the few who advocated for that who were non physicians, even though we've been talking about it forever, and in the middle of the Delta surge, after he didn't do anything, he started promoting monoclonal antibodies, and the first thing that he did was host the round table with the hospital CEOs. News flash. The monoclonal antibody therapy is an outpatient regimen, okay? If you're getting it at the hospital, for most folks, it's too late. It needs to be given in communities, in clinics like mine, who are more likely to be in first contact with the patient, but he didn't really care about the efficacy or the effectiveness of monoclonal antibody therapy. It became more about the optics of it, and you could see that in his strategy, because he didn't do anything else, didn't address mitigation, didn't address actually protecting our most vulnerable. His big solution to the Delta surge midway through was monoclonal antibody therapy, and didn't even deploy it right.

Dr. Bernard Ashby:

So, this just goes to how important it is for us, as physicians and public health work experts, to be more astute when it comes to the politics, but also, just the psychology of the pandemic, geopolitics, comprehensive and global in our understanding, because it's not just about the science. It's really about the power dynamics and the politics at play, which often interfere with our ability to address our individual patients and the public health, and I've learned an important lesson and that's something that we're working to address with the community to protect healthcare, in terms of building our power base to not only just inform the public and advocate for them, but to apply force against those who serve to do harm against our population.

Farai Chideya:

You're listening to Sipping the Political Tea on Our Body Politic. I'm Farai Chideya. This week, we're doing a special round table on COVID and the impacts of the pandemic with Dr. Bernard Ashby and Dr. Kavita Patel. If you're just tuning in, you can catch the whole conversation on our podcast. Just find Our Body Politic wherever you listen to podcasts. I want both of you to weigh on this, but Dr. Patel, this has been a huge mental health crisis. Gallup polling from December showed American's mental health is at an all time low. Morning Consult polling found that one in five healthcare workers have quit their jobs since the pandemic began, and you're both practicing physicians, and Dr. Patel, you first, and then Dr. Ashby, how do we deal with the mental health crisis within the larger pandemic crisis?

Dr. Kavita Patel:

Yeah, I think we actually have to deal with it outside of just saying to people, well, therapy might help you or it would be a great idea for you to see a psychologist or a behavioral social worker, which is actually what, standardly, I have 15 minutes to see patients, and that's generally what I would do. I would screen for depression and anxiety and if it were flagged positive, I'd say, "Listen, I'm concerned, but here. Here's the name of somebody who can help you, and then it's up to you," before I'd go figure out how to do all that. We can't do that anymore. My practice is 99% Latina, and it's because I'm a woman and I speak Spanish, so I kind of have this similar population. The most common complaint people come to me is not the one that's on their presentation. It's what I call the doorknob question. I'm about to walk out and then they're like, "My hair is falling out. I'm not sleeping. I don't know what to do. I've been gaining weight and I don't know why."

Dr. Kavita Patel:

And what I've witnessed is two years, especially the women I see, of constant chronic stress, that if I could take their cortisol levels, it would be the same as if they were hit by a bus on a daily basis, because that's what is happening. So stress and mental health and all of these things, and their manifestations of that are completely related. We also have to do this outside of the conventional healthcare system because it doesn't work, and so I am hoping, because you have all these employers that are interested in keeping people safe by masks and this, and what do we need to do in the workplace? I've been trying really hard to add to that, how are we going to do mental health screener? How can you provide services in a convenient way?

Dr. Kavita Patel:

On a policy front, we have to extend telehealth services and allow for flexibility. I can do much more on the phone with one of my patients who works at a grocery store and only has 15 minutes for me in the middle of her day, than telling her to go try to find someone that is covered by her Medicaid plan and be on an eight month wait list, and that applies to children too. And then I know President Biden had a very long press conference prior to this podcast, but I would love to see in the president's new budget, and I'd love to see in what I suspect will be an upcoming COVID relief package, because we'll probably need one, is to see a significant amount of money in mental health services and education and having school-based services for mental health inside, literally inside the schools, where we've really done damage to children and their families as well.

Farai Chideya:

Yeah, and definitely I have seen in my own circle a lot of my friends with their kids struggling with depression. In one case, really life threatening, and Dr. Ashby, how is this manifesting in your community and how you think about your work, the idea of mental wellness and how we seek it at this really complex and fraught time?

Dr. Bernard Ashby:

Well, this pandemic has, in my estimation, revealed our country for what it is, and so one thing about the US is that we're really good at PR and marketing and presenting things in a certain way, contrary to the reality of circumstances, and things like mental health are just not a priority. It's something we talk about because it's good PR, but you can always tell what we really care about by our allocation of funding and the resources that we deploy to certain issues, and that includes healthcare. So, I guess something's better than nothing, but at the end of the day, our healthcare system is oriented to make money, period, and anything that we do beyond that is trying to work around those confines. So as long as we have a for-profit healthcare system that is incentivized to make money, we'll continue to have the same issues that we're seeing and we'll continue to spend a God awful amount on healthcare that doesn't actually get translated into outcomes for our patients. It's always going to be fo focused on making money, with prevention and mental health and just overall quality of life is a afterthought.

Farai Chideya:

And we're going to have to wrap it up. There's so much to talk about, but I'm going to end with you, Dr. Patel, and any thoughts you have on kids, schools, the emotional wellness of kids and the physical wellness of kids. What can both people who have kids or who have responsibilities for kids, like physicians and teachers be doing or thinking?

Dr. Kavita Patel:

Yeah, I'm going to be very practical, and I try to be optimistic again, because I don't know what else to do anymore, but one, I do think that you have to be an advocate for your child. I think all working parents, parents in general, families in general, try to do it, but we're all operating on duct tape and scotch tape in life right now, but I think you have to rise up and try to advocate for your child, because it's not going to be let me take you to the pediatrician. That pediatrician is also holding it together with duct tape, and they leave the room like I do and don't know quite what to do. So advocate for your child, including talking to the very teachers who are also holding it together, but will take the time, because that's what they do, to think about how to address some of the issues.

Dr. Kavita Patel:

And then number two, I think one of the things I see in parents, some parents are truly in fear of their child getting infected or someone in the household being infected, and I think we're going to have to give people better ways to control some of the fear around infection, because we do have, as you point out, not just the vaccines. Our therapeutics right now unfortunately are only limited to 12 and above. They are working on oral therapeutics for the under 12 age group, and that will be critical, because that'll give us a little bit more of a safety net, where if you get that infection, your heart doesn't stop, which mine would have two years ago, because I didn't know what was happening.

Dr. Kavita Patel:

And then the third very practical thing, incredibly pragmatic, is this push to get tests out for free from the Biden administration. You can't test out of COVID, but use that test to help also balance the risk and allow for you to allow your family to do things that will help your child feel the best that they can be. For my son, it's playing soccer, and it has to be indoors because of weather, and I'm doing exactly that. He's vaccinated and I'm trying to balance how we can test him and make sure, but I also know that if he gets infected, him being vaccinated gives me a cushion. So do that and go into these environments, thinking about what's the most important? You know your kids best. What's the most important?

Dr. Kavita Patel:

And then they sense fear. Children are so smart. They sense everything, and in the absence of a direct conversation, children will put something in there, and that something gets in their heads. So address the fear. I told my children early on, I am scared, and I didn't quite say what I should have, I'm scared I might die, but I should have, because they understand. They do, and they're five and seven, but I think that it was good that I told them I was scared, but then they saw me go to work. So address the fear, because it actually helps them feel less afraid, knowing what you're feeling, instead of making up what you're feeling.

Farai Chideya:

Dr. Patel, thanks so much for joining us.

Dr. Kavita Patel:

Thank you.

Farai Chideya:

And Dr. Ashby, thank you as well.

Dr. Bernard Ashby:

Thank you.

Farai Chideya:

And we have been speaking again with Dr. Bernard Ashby, a Miami cardiologist and Florida state lead for the Committee to Protect Healthcare, and Dr. Kavita Patel, a primary care physician and former Obama White House health policy director. 

 

Farai Chideya:

Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week -- and everywhere you listen to podcasts. Our Body Politic is produced by Diaspora Farms. I'm the executive producer and host, Farai Chideya. Bridget McAllister is our booker and producer. Emily J. Daly and Bianca Martin are our producers. Our associate producer is Natyna Bean. Production and editing services are by Clean Cuts at Three Seas. Today's episode was produced by Lauren Schild. Archie Moore and Andrew Eppig are sound engineers.
 

Farai Chideya:
We’d also like to once again thank the podcast 'Into America'. These episodes of Into America were produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Ellen Frankman, Max Jacobs, Joshua Sirotiak, and Aisha Turner. You can listen to 'Into America' "wherever you get your podcasts. 

 

Farai Chideya:

This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, the Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BMe Community, Katie McGrath and J.J. Abrams Family Foundation, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.