Biden’s choice for his Covid-19 task force signals the return of diversity

The doctor will see you now.
The doctor will see you now.
Image: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
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It’s the first working day since the election was called, and the upcoming Biden administration is already proving to be more diverse than its predecessor.

Vivek Murthy, the former US surgeon general, has been given a key position in president-elect Joe Biden’s Covid-19 task force. This marks Murthy’s return to the policy mainstream after he was asked to resign by the Trump administration in 2017 because the new administration wanted its own people. Here’s the complete list:

  • David Kessler, co-chair, former FDA commissioner
  • Marcella Nunez-Smith, co-chair, Yale associate dean for health equity research
  • Vivek Murthy, co-chair, former surgeon general
  • Luciana Borio, former assistant FDA commissioner 
  • Rick Bright, former BARDA director 
  • Zeke Emanuel, former Obama administration health policy adviser
  • Atul Gawande, Brigham and Women’s hospital professor of surgery 
  • Celine Gounder, NYU Grossman School of Medicine assistant professor
  • Dr. Julie Morita, former Chicago public health commissioner 
  • Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota
  • Loyce Pace, executive director of the Global Health Council
  • Dr. Robert Rodriguez, UCSF emergency medicine professor
  • Eric Goosby, former Ryan White Care Act director

Murthy’s return to a plum health care policy position is reminiscent of the time he was sworn in as the 19th US surgeon general in 2014, in a ceremony presided over by then-vice president Biden. At 37 back then, Murthy was a shining example of the great Indian American dream.

A humble, farming family in India

Murthy’s family traces its roots back to a village called Hallegere, in the Mandya district of the southern Indian state of Karnataka. His father, also a physician, came from a family of farmers and migrated to the US after spending a few years in the UK.

During the ceremony in April 2015 when he was sworn in as surgeon general, Murthy had recalled how unlikely this achievement seemed given where he came from. “My family was never supposed to have left our ancestral village. My father is the son of a farmer in rural India. He was supposed to have been a farmer, as was I,” he said. “But for my grandfather’s insistence that his son get an education—even if that meant going into debt—we might have never left that village to go out in the world, and as my grandfather also insisted, start fixing what needed fixing.”

At the time, Biden said: “This is an example of what makes this such an exceptional, exceptional country. When the grandson of a farmer in India is asked by the president to protect the health and welfare of people in this country and around the world…pretty incredible.”

Murthy, who was born in the UK, grew up in Miami, Florida, with his father Hallegere Murthy, his mother Myetraie, and physician sister Rashmi. A graduate of Harvard University, with an MD from Yale School of Medicine, and an MBA in healthcare policy from Yale School of Management, he was the youngest person to hold one of the most significant healthcare positions in the US.

During the ceremony in 2015, Biden took a friendly shot at Murthy. “What a group of underachievers,” he had said, according to the Yale School of Medicine’s magazine. “Nobody should do that much so young. Did you ever sleep?” he added.

The affordable healthcare man

Under the Obama administration, Murthy was a vocal advocate for the Affordable Care Act—colloquially known as Obamacare—which was weakened by the Trump administration through measures such as executive orders. He has extensively spoken about the key experiences that shaped his outlook toward affordable health care.

“Being poor, which affects one in five children, is too great a factor in determining who is healthy and who is not. In a nation as great as ours, a nation my parents crossed oceans and borders to reach, that is unacceptable,” he said during the ceremony in April 2015. “These realities hurt all of us. They threaten our economy, our educational system, the productivity of our workers, and even our national security. They bend the arc of the moral universe away from justice. To put it simply, health equity is a civil rights issue.”

Before his appointment, though, Murthy’s candidacy for surgeon general faced stiff opposition in the senate from the National Rifle Association. This was because Murthy had called gun violence a public health threat.

In the roughly three years as surgeon general, he worked on American initiatives towards curbing the zika and ebola viruses. Along with his sister, he also co-founded Visions, a peer-to-peer HIV education program in India and the US.

After his tenure abruptly ended in 2017, Murthy went on to write a book called Together, on the perils of social recession, and the importance of human connections.