“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1957
Meet Dr. Bukhosi Dube, senior health advisor for Oregon Health Authority (OHA). Dube’s work on the “Ask a Black Doctor” podcast and other outreach programs has been a frequent source of COVID-19 and vaccination information for Oregon’s Black, African American, African Immigrant and African Refugee communities. The Portland Business Journal recently named him one of Oregon’s top 100 Black leaders in business, government, advocacy, arts and entertainment.
Dr. Dube was born and raised in Zimbabwe and has a love for sports. So much so that he believes had he grown up in the United States, he would have tried to become a professional athlete. In fact, when he first heard rumblings about COVID-19 in January 2020, he was making travel plans to attend a major sporting event.
“When news of COVID-19 first took hold, I did not even think it would be as serious as it became,” said Dube. “I made plans with some of my medical school classmates to go to Las Vegas for March Madness, which ended up being cancelled that year.”
In spite of his love of sports, it was the Dube family value of volunteering that anchored him. His parents taught him to always find ways to help others and give back.
“When you’re young, you don’t realize that it’s unique to your family,” said Dube. “It was only when I was older that I realized other families weren’t doing that. It was incredibly impactful to the way I see the world; I’m always trying to find ways to improve myself and improve the world around me.”
Dr. Dube understands first-hand the challenges, traditions and mindsets of the Black and immigrant communities. Seeing the disparity in health care among people of color is what motivated him to take on a position of leadership with OHA, championing causes like local and global vaccine equity and addressing social determinants of health.
“It’s the principal of double effect; we have to take care of others so as to take care of ourselves,” Dube explained. And given the global nature of a virus which knows borders, Dube says, “If we do not make a concerted effort to vaccinate the rest of the world, we are working against ourselves.”
In Oregon, Dube’s concern is especially given to marginalized people, and he feels policymakers should be doing a better job prioritizing people of color.
“Black and Brown folks have been impacted at much, much higher rates than Caucasians,” he said. “To me that inequity is damning to us as a society. It shows that we don’t really care about a certain group of people. We can’t expect people to be buying their diabetic medications when they don’t have food.”
Dube cites historical medical atrocities such as the 19th century J. Marion Sims gynecological experiments on enslaved Black women and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments on Black men that began in the 1930s. He believes events like these led to the Black community’s great mistrust of the political system, as well as the health care system.
He also spends a lot of time explaining what mRNA is, how it works and dispelling myths that it can cause impotence or infertility. “Early in the pandemic most people thought mRNA was made just for these vaccines,” Dube said. “For as long as human beings have been around there’s been mRNA. [It] is constantly working in your body to make proteins.”
Disinformation is as far reaching as his homeland of Zimbabwe, which is about four times the size of Oregon in terms of population but has a much smaller GDP. Vaccines have not been readily available there, but as Dube explains, myths about them are plentiful.
“Because the U.S. is typically a trusted source of information, the anti vax sentiment has slipped into Zimbabwe as well,” said Dube. “I’ve seen a lot of WhatsApp messages and videos that are posted with just the most ridiculous things.” One example he gave: “The vaccines were made to kill Africans.”
Dr. Dube says that he tries to clarify the narrative about the COVID-19 virus and vaccines by sharing only the facts. It’s also important, he believes, to be empathetic and meet people where they are, to listen to what they have to say and admit when you don’t have the answer. And never be condescending.
Being vaccinated and boosted remains the best defense against COVID-19. It’s a message Dr. Dube shares with his patients as often as he can.
“You give people information to grapple with,” Dube explains. “When they are ready to receive the information, they change their own minds.” For example, Dube tells the story of a former patient named Raymond.
“He was an African American gentleman who would say things like, ‘You know, I don’t buy into this. This is not real; all this mRNA stuff is made up. They’re just trying to sterilize us.’ I would listen to him. At the end of each visit, we would spend the last five minutes talking about vaccines and I would engage him on whatever concerns he had. After about six weeks or so, Raymond had gone from being an unbeliever to being a champion of vaccines. He convinced his sister, his parents and his partner to get vaccinated. He was talking to everybody about vaccines!”
In addition to his work with OHA, Dr. Dube is also chief medical and integration officer for Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare. He says entering medicine has allowed him to fulfill his desire to serve.
“I truly enjoy being of service. I truly enjoy giving back. When you can do that for a living to me it’s no longer work.”
When asked about his legacy from this time in history with COVID-19, Dr. Dube returns to his love of service.
“I hope that I have made other people’s lives better. That’s what speaks to me as a physician. That’s what resonates with me,” he said. “Even if it’s the most menial task or helping someone carry their bags to the car at the grocery store. I want to be remembered as someone who loved deeply and who gave back as much as he could.”