He says the spirit of public service was instilled by his parents when he was a boy growing up in Guyana. It was later reinforced when he came to the District and enrolled at Howard University’s College of Pharmacy.
It is a code of “selflessness and commitment,” as he put it — both indispensable qualities in any long-term fight for a just and more equitable nation.
Many cheered when D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) ordered city workers to paint “Black Lives Matter” on a street near the White House. That bit of symbolism was easy. But what is being done about the disparities that call for more than symbolism?
The District has one of the nation’s largest racial disparities in coronavirus deaths, according to a report by the nonpartisan APM Research Lab. While black residents make up just 44 percent of the District’s population, they make up at least 74 percent of deaths from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, according to the report.
And much of that disparity can be explained by another: Median white household wealth in the District is 81 times as high as median black household wealth, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank based in the District.
Making black lives matter in reality — that will be harder.
“Uptown, you see all the hospitals, the doctor’s offices, the specialty clinics and the grocery stores,” he said. “Then you go south, across the Anacostia River, and it’s a health desert and a food desert.”
Ramdass grew up in Berbice, Guyana. His father was a pharmacist who provided medical care for hundreds of villagers who worked on a sugar cane plantation. Slavery and colonialism in the country had left a legacy of racism and profound racial disparities in wealth, health and education.
“When my father would go into the village to see the cane cutters, he would take me with him,” Ramdass recalled. “What struck me was how grateful people were to get health care. People wanted to be healthy, but it was hard because they were so poor. But they still wanted to pay him — so they gave him bananas, coconuts and loaves of bread.”
When Ramdass arrived in the District in the late 1970s to attend Howard University, he found the nation’s capital scarred with familiar racial disparities — all rooted in the same history of racism and slavery. “It felt like I was back in the old country,” he said.
After graduating from the College of Pharmacy in 1983, he went to work at a pharmacy at 12th and H Street NE, the store serving as a medical lifeline for many of the poor black residents who lived around it.
“Elderly people were having to pay somebody to go pick up their medicine, which they could barely afford,” he said. “People were coming to the pharmacists for medical advice because they did not have the access to affordable health care.”
And little was being done to address the problem.
Ramdass simply recommitted himself to public service. He became a member of the U.S. Public Health Commissioned Corps (he’s also a retired captain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve). Then he returned to Howard to get an MBA in health-care management and opened his own pharmacy in the Riggs Park area of Northeast Washington.
But he’s only one man.
With budget hearings underway before the D.C. Council this week, grass-roots activists are pushing for a tax hike on the city’s wealthier residents to help close the health inequities made even more clear by the coronavirus pandemic.
Doni Crawford and Qubilah Huddleston, policy analysts with the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, wrote a post for the website under the headline “The Black Burden of COVID-19.” They stated: “Black communities have been neglected by public policy for far too long, and the Mayor and the Council have a responsibility to dismantle the structures and policies that make us most vulnerable.”
Alyssa Noth, another policy analyst with the group, told me, “Those who benefited from Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy have not been hit as hard by the pandemic and they are not having to overcome hundreds of years of racist policies. If they believe in creating an equitable city, they should be willing to pay their fair share.”
Everybody has a role.
Ramdass wants to be ready whenever researchers find a cure for covid-19. He is a licensed vaccinating pharmacist, and he says he would be willing to work around-the-clock to get as many people inoculated as possible. But even after that, there will still be work to do.
“Now that covid has unmasked the health disparities in this city, for us to turn a blind eye and go back to business as usual, I would consider that medical malpractice on the part of the city,” Ramdass said.
“We have to ask ourselves what is most important — getting a bigger mansion uptown or making sure everyone has access to affordable health care?” Ramdass said. “If we are indeed people of good conscience as we claim, the answer would be to help our brothers and sisters in need.”
Ramdass is doing his part. Will elected officials do theirs?
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.