As a nation, what we’ve seen over the past few weeks is complete havoc wreaked by natural disasters, from Hurricane Harvey destroying homes in Texas to Hurricane Maria uprooting every structure that Puerto Ricans need to survive. Personally, I’ve seen the heartbreaking reality of my best friend experiencing extreme anxiety while being unable to contact his family in Puerto Rico for several days.
But after seeing all this chaos, I’d argue that the most devastating part is actually what we haven’t seen-- and that is any semblance of leadership from the White House.
As the president and CEO of a public health center network, the physical wellness of my fellow human beings is my first priority because, on the most basic level, our bodies are the vessels in which we all live one short life, making them all deserving of care and respect. Similarly, the federal government’s first and most basic job is to protect the physical safety of the people-- yet our so-called leaders are currently neglecting 3.4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico whose bodies are in grave danger.
Right now, only 17 of Puerto Rico’s 69 hospitals have power and 1.5 million of the island’s inhabitants are deprived of clean drinking water. More people have died from the lack of medical services following Hurricane Maria than from the storm itself, and hundreds more are at risk of unnecessary death-- yet our president has spent his time joking about the island’s debt, insulting its leaders, and undermining the number of people that the island has already lost forever.
Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar story. During Hurricane Katrina, the failure of the U.S. government to evacuate African-American residents and the slow disaster response that followed illustrated the racism that permeates U.S. relief efforts. Our government’s lackluster response to Puerto Rico’s crisis, taken in tandem with Trump’s disrespectful dialogue, lay bare this racist reality yet again. Time after time, our government makes it clear that they only care about protecting certain bodies. That should infuriate each and every one of us.
We are caught in a moment when we must all ask ourselves what role we will play in helping our neighbors in Puerto Rico when the man sitting in our nation’s highest office is too incompetent to do so himself. What St. John’s is doing is sending doctors armed with hundreds of pounds of medicine to Puerto Rico next week. We hope that people across the country continue their generosity, so that we can collectively free Puerto Rico from the unimaginable burden of the storm’s effects.
While the aftermath of Hurricane Maria is devastating enough, Puerto Rico’s tragedy extends beyond disaster relief. Puerto Rico, a colony that has been long neglected by the U.S. government and abused by Wall Street, deserves the same treatment that we’re able to provide our community here in South Los Angeles. Thanks to our status as a Federally Qualified Health Center, we’ve been able to serve our homeless and undocumented brothers and sisters at low to no cost to them, and as the largest provider of health care services in the largest area of contiguous poverty in the continental United States, we know that health care is a catalyst for social, racial, and economic justice. In order to ensure that Puerto Rico can create sustainable structures that will weather any storm, the federal government must extend the same privileges and support to Puerto Rico that they provide to mainland USA.
For now, it’s time that this country’s elected officials start recognizing that health care is a fundamental human right for all-- no matter where you live. In the meantime, it’s up to all of us to step up and provide our neighbors in Puerto Rico with the help that they need.