Photo Credit: Justin Kiner
A Commitment to Public Service is Consistent, not Convenient
I’m scared and appalled by the recent surge in social gatherings that are completely ignoring public health guidelines. But let me be perfectly clear, I’m not talking about the recent protests that have erupted in response to the murder of African-Americans by law enforcement. Racism, like COVID-19, is a public health emergency.
I’m talking about the graduating class of the Harvard Kennedy School.
I understand the sadness of helplessly watching your Master’s degree limp across the finish line. I understand the loneliness of Zoom classes, and the apathy of graduating without any pomp, and even less circumstance.
Like many of my fellow graduating classmates, my HKS conclusion wasn’t what I had envisioned. In March, when the severity of the impending pandemic became clearer, I left my comfortable, bright Cambridge apartment and found a smaller studio apartment in Toronto, where I was previously working as an ER physician. It was immediately clear that to honour the spirit of my Master’s degree, my place was back in the ER.
During graduation week, that’s where I was – back in the ER. Halfway through my shift, my face sweaty from wearing a mask and a face shield for four straight hours, I took a short break, and reached into my scrubs pocket. I pulled out my phone, which was wrapped in a sandwich bag for easy cleaning at the end of my shift – one of the dozens of small strategies I’ve adopted to reduce the risk of bringing COVID-19 back home. Navigating my social media feed through the rustling of the plastic was annoying, but I was eager to briefly escape, see a few messages from my fellow graduating classmates, and bask in the warm nostalgia of a life in Cambridge that seemed so recent, yet also felt like an alternate reality.
What I saw astonished me. Pictures of students, who had just completed a degree apparently dedicated to public service, gathering in groups of twenty or more. Friends, not only less than two metres apart, but hugging and posing for pictures together – proudly and publicly disregarding all public health guidelines.
It pained me to reconcile what I was seeing. Here I was, in the ER, having just spent an hour on the phone with a patient’s family, letting them know that their loved one’s lungs were failing, and no, they couldn’t come see them in the ER. And yet my friends and colleagues were celebrating their personal achievements at the expense of people like my patient.
It is the most vulnerable amongst us – the elderly, the poor, communities of colour – who will pay the price for these celebrations.
I’ve lost track of how many times over the past two years I’ve heard Kennedy School students referred to as “future leaders” and “the ones who are going to tackle the biggest issues facing our society.” We are prematurely placed on an unmerited pedestal. There are plenty of reasons to celebrate your individual achievements, but it should never come at the expense of public service. Our education and our degrees have never been about us – they are supposed to be about the communities we serve.
In the past two years, I’ve often been asked with bewilderment why I came to the Kennedy School after years of medical training and a desire to continue practicing clinical medicine. After working as an ER physician for a few years, I realized that the medical community sees the failures of our public policies, but often fails to act outside of the healthcare system on a larger, systemic scale. Racism, income inequality, and climate change are fundamentally all health issues, and I wanted to understand how to take the lessons of the policy world back to the world of medicine.
In return, let me offer the graduating class of 2020 a lesson from the world of medicine. If you want to earn the mantle of future leader and tackle the biggest issues facing our society – first, do no harm.