Op-Ed | How churches can help our city heal from the pandemic

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By Dr. Ramon Tallaj 

In a matter of four short months, our city has been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken over 17,000 lives and forced more than 2 million people out of jobs. Communities of color, also at the epicenter of protest and activism over police injustice, have borne the brunt.

New York is in a dark time. And the uncertainty and fear are far from over as the threat of a second wave sits right on our doorstep – and major questions linger over a safe way forward to rebuild communities, safely open schools and safely using public transportation. Answers are in short supply. We are nervous.

I’m an immigrant doctor who leads a nonprofit network of immigrant physicians, who largely serve the communities where we live, learn and pray. We know well that even before the pandemic and the protests, our communities were already decades behind the financial and health advances of the general population. COVID-19 has magnified those disparities.

Many of our community members work low-income jobs – as line-cooks, nurse’s aides, grocery store clerks – majority of which can’t be done remotely and don’t offer paid sick days. Many of our families live in smaller quarters with shared bathrooms and living spaces with multiple people, so they are not able to self-quarantine as effectively. And many have limited access to quality healthcare and less likely to have a connection to general practitioners if they come down with a fever, dry cough or shortness of breath—some of the top symptoms of COVID-19.

They are in crisis.

And in a crisis, everybody needs a partner to rely on. Who share common values, and are joined by a common mission. That’s why the partnership that community doctors have formed with the Archdiocese of New York to test and treat the coronavirus is giving thousands of lower-income New Yorkers hope. In immigrant communities, there may be little trust between vulnerable populations and official institutions, including government and big corporate hospitals. But there is trust with the family doctor and the church.

For many, doctors and faith leaders alike are the essence of essentiality. People are seeking the care they need and together we are bridging the gaps by helping restore hope in our hard-hit communities and sharing a message of healing and restoration preached and practiced by the church. Priests are working alongside doctors in nearly fifty churches and, so far, have tested and treated over 100,000 New Yorkers for COVID-19. And since they are on the front lines, priests and church staff are also being tested.

Like doctors, the church has long recognized healthcare as a basic human right that’s essential to the development of each of our humanity. Pope Francis and Cardinal Dolan have joined health workers in their cities and in crisis zones all over the world to spread this message of healing for the sick and caring for the poor. That mission has also opened access to many who experience barriers to health care even on good days. That is why it is critical that testing sites are purposefully located in communities of color and are staffed by priests and doctors that speak Spanish and Chinese as well as English.

It is in this time of disconnection, despair and disunity, our parishes, and our community doctors open the doors and create safe spaces. It’s our calling and our mission to care for, treat, and uplift all who are weary and burdened.

Our churches and our doctors are ready. Together, let’s rebuild and come back stronger than before. Through this, we can piece together our brokenness, unite and begin the process of healing.

Dr. Ramon Tallaj is the Chairman of SOMOS, a non-profit, physician-led network of more than 2,500 health care providers serving over 800,000 patients.