Updated on: May 8, 2020

Billie Holiday and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Original story posted on: May 7, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. H. Steven Moffic first reported this story during the most recent episode of Talk Ten Tuesdays.

April 20 was the 81st anniversary of the day when the famous African-American jazz singer Billie Holiday, recorded a searing version of the song “Strange Fruit.” What was the titular strange fruit? Black bodies hanging from poplar trees, lynched.

This year, April 20 was a leading day of concern for the belatedly recognized and disproportionate deaths of black Americans from the coronavirus. Billie Holiday, if she was still alive, surely would not be surprised. She’d seen progress in reducing racism, but not nearly enough.

You may recall that most people said in the early days of the pandemic that the virus doesn’t recognize race or skin color. A virus is not alive, and doesn’t have eyes. But it does recognize vulnerability. It can tell when lungs are already vulnerable due to a higher rate of cardio-respiratory disease, which is disproportionately prevalent in black people. It can tell that it is easier to infect people living in poor, crowded buildings, or incarcerated. It can tell that 80 percent of the black women who are obese are more at risk, as it takes longer to shed the virus after being infected when that is the case. It can tell that it can multiply exponentially when getting care is delayed due to practical obstacles and mistrust of the medical system.

In modern times, racism had been considered for a DSM classification, but it didn’t make it. Maybe this time calls for another try. At least in ICD-10, it is indirectly reflected in the Z code of Z60: Problems related to social environment.

If you live in the Baltimore area or ever go there, there is a statue of Billie Holiday. It has a renovated pedestal with two panels. One of them was inspired by the song “Strange Fruit,” and depicts a lynching. The other was inspired by the song “God Bless the Child (That Has Its Own),” and depicts a child with an umbilical cord still attached

No wonder that Billie Holiday’s favorite song was God Bless the Child. It starts with:

"Them that’s got shall get,

Them that’s not shall lose

So the bible says

And it still is news…”

It ends with:

“Every child’s got to have his own, yeah”

Today and toward the future, in the spirit of cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, let’s positively reframe that ending to:

God bless the society that cares for all.

H. Steven Moffic, MD

H. Steven Moffic, MD, is an award-winning author whose fifth book, “The Ethical Way: Challenges & Solutions for Managed Behavioral Health,” is considered a seminal study on healthcare ethics. Always in demand as a writer, Dr. Moffic has attracted a national audience with his three blogs— Psychiatry Times, Behavior Healthcare, and Over 65.H. Dr. Moffic, who is also a popular guest on Talk-Ten-Tuesdays, recently received the Administrative Psychiatry Award from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the American Association of Psychiatrist Administrators (AAPA).

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