Time for a New Letter From a Birmingham Jail

Hello and welcome. I'm Dr George Lundberg and this is At Large at Medscape.

Birmingham, Alabama, knows more than a little about protests. This time the protests must be on behalf of the health of all of Alabama (and broadly, the world) and not just for the freedom of American Black people, as in the 1950s and 1960s.

Humankind is faced with two existential threats to its continued successful life on Planet Earth: man-made climate change and uncontrolled variants of SARS-CoV-2. I will defer revisiting the health impacts of climate change to a later column.

As of August 2021, the United States is the current epicenter of the COVID pandemic. We have the knowledge and the technology to thwart the virus, at least in its current rendition. But never has it been clearer that our extensive knowledge of brain science/function does not include an effective understanding of how to counter destructive human behavior.

Individual behavior is key. I received my BS from the legally segregated University of Alabama (UAB) in 1952 and my MD from the legally segregated Medical College of Alabama in 1957. The civil rights protest movement was well underway by then. Teenager Claudette Colvin's protest led Rosa Parks to famously initiate the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1955.

Martin Luther King wrote his literary and social tour-de-force "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" in April 1963, to local White clergy religious leaders. In it is the unforgettable quote, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." The Bull Connor firehose photo scene was from May 1963.

When I first returned to Birmingham from the US Army in 1966 — a scant 9 years after finishing medical school — to look at a job opportunity at UAB, the entire medical complex was integrated, even the blood bank. Astonishing.

How did that happen, almost overnight? The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but especially the Medicare and Medicaid legislation of 1965.

This sudden application of club/stick and sugar/carrot incentives powered a seismic social shift that would never have occurred without sustained, powerful, and effective peaceful protest.

Fast-forward 56 years. The populace and the politicians of Alabama, by nurturing — even legislating — "vaccine hesitancy" have now made vaccination-resistant Alabama (and other similar southern states) the epicenter of the American Pandemic of the Unvaccinated. This matters hugely to the health of the world, as the unchecked virus is always mutating.

Some school boards in south Florida are leading the way into another potentially massive protest movement, this time against the obstructionist governing bodies of some individual states and for the health of the public. If the politicians place their own ignorance and political future ahead of the public's health, it is time for civil disobedience and peaceful protest.

In 2021, it is not Martin Luther King writing from a Birmingham jail about protests and White church leaders trying to get Black protestors to stop protesting. This time it is Birmingham-based sports columnist Joseph Goodman calling for civil disobedience by employee leaders of Alabama-owned universities to protest against the governor and the legislature by requiring proof of vaccination or a recent negative test to enter a sports event.

Comparing COVID vaccination to the civil rights movement may seem a false choice, even trite. It is not. Untold thousands of preventable human deaths may well result from this seriously stalled American vaccination effort.

Those of you readers who do not understand "The South" may not realize that the Alabama state motto is "We dare defend our rights." To move "the people" seriously requires fundamentalist religion, fear/hate, and love of football (crazy as that may sound) or federal law. It is time for the appointed leaders to risk their jobs, or even a stint in a Birmingham jail, to protect the people from themselves by denying admission to Alabama football games in person in 2021 without proof of full vaccination or a negative PCR test within 72 hours.

To paraphrase MLK, "COVID anywhere is a threat to unvaccinated humans everywhere."

We shall — must — overcome.

That's my opinion. I'm Dr George Lundberg, at large for Medscape.

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