Leonard Zwelling

         This op-ed by Abigail Shrier in The Wall Street Journal on June 6 makes a very critical point about the hypocrisy governing America’s response to the coronavirus and to the death of George Floyd. In the first case, we were told to hunker down, stay out of crowds, and particularly to stay away from houses of worship. Now it seems, crowds pouring out in the streets, peaceful or otherwise, is perfectly OK when the subject turns from religion to racism. In other words, we cannot gather to worship, but we can to protest. Hmmm?

         The same crazy thinking seems to be affecting the decisions at academic medical centers, particularly those in the Texas Medical Center where there’s a hodgepodge of different rules governing the behavior of faculty and staff, even in just one institution, MD Anderson.

         Some lab buildings are open and people are returning to work. Other labs remain shuttered. It’s not clear why. There is still a dearth of patients at Anderson although elective surgery, an oxymoron if there ever was one in cancer care, has started up again.

         And, while the leadership of MD Anderson hands out ukases on strict distancing among the faculty, that same administration releases what appears to be a costly video of dancing “leaders” hugging one another without masks, while others hunker down in their million dollar living rooms by their luxe swimming pools. I have learned through my sources that the leadership of Anderson is pleased with the video and has only received positive feedback. Undoubtedly this positive feedback is from the people who are in the video. No wonder they give it a “thumbs up.” All of the emails I have gotten in response to my posting the link to the video have been decidedly negative. Most people are appalled that presidents and vice presidents could be whirling around while so many of the people they oversee are working from home amid kids and dogs and spouses all of whom are also confined to small spaces if they have the misfortune of not living in West U. This demonstrates the tin ear of the president of MD Anderson. He cannot feel the pain of those in the faculty and staff itching to return to work in some fashion, but being told they may have to shelter in place for the rest of the year.

         America and MD Anderson give out inconsistent messages. If MD Anderson had to be in lockdown a month ago, it still does because coronavirus is just as common in the Houston air now as it was then. If the gradual opening is an expression of the realization that we are going to have to learn to live with the virus while fulfilling the MD Anderson mission of cancer eradication, then let’s get on with it. This incrementalism in the name of caution is getting old.

         Here’s a bulletin for the leadership of MD Anderson. It is likely that people who work at Anderson will contract the virus and demonstrate the symptoms of COVID-19. Some may even die. Furthermore, they may or may not have contracted the disease at Anderson. These are the facts of the pandemic. Cancer does not go on a pandemic holiday.

         If America was really worried about the pandemic, the last thing that is needed is marching in the streets. But this is still America and such demonstrations cannot be stopped. Furthermore, there is an argument that can be made that the death of George Floyd unshackled pent up frustration of living indoors and served as the spark to spill people into the streets which in turn served as the unfortunate spark for the bad actors to show up to loot and burn. It may also be the spark of a new bunch of COVID-19 cases.

         From my perch, mostly inside, I see great inconsistency and no leadership in the country or in the institution I love. Where is either going?  I can’t figure it out. Apparently 80% of Americans see the country as “out of control” according to Chuck Todd on Meet the Press. A clear articulation of the vision for America by either Trump or Biden would be welcomed. Ditto a plan from Dr. Pisters about how MD Anderson can get back to work when patient numbers are still down and research is on shifts in some places and on hold in others. Such a plan should not require an hour to explain nor a set of twenty PowerPoint slides.

         If people can flood the streets, they can return to the pews albeit with some modification for social distancing and mask wearing. The same is true at MD Anderson. I pray the faculty and staff can get back to work.

         I also urge the so-called leadership of MD Anderson who star in the video to re-examine that YouTube posting with some sensitivity toward those who are stuck at home trying to do their jobs from their living rooms and consider how frivolous this nonsense appears to the outside world. As the rest of the country and the world cope with a pandemic and systemic racism, those purporting to set the path for a major cancer center are dancing on rooftops. Whose idea was this anyway and why does he or she still have a job?

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