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A local doctor was pushed into a world of hate. Here’s why he’s standing tall despite being the target of cruel messages. 

FLINT, Mich.—The dire effects COVID-19 can have on one’s health have been well documented nearly two years into the pandemic. But the virus has an unintended side effect that divides communities and manifests itself in vitriol and hurtful messaging: Hate. 

Just ask Dr. Bobby Mukkamala, a well-known and beloved ear, nose, and throat doctor in Flint. Before COVID-19 became a part of everyday conversation, his days were as typical as a doctor’s could be. 

But now, he holds in his hands a racist letter, something sent his way after he provided insight in the Genesee County debate over whether to require masks for students attending in-person classes. 

What has changed? In the age of the pandemic, science has been convoluted with conspiracy and confusing information spreads like wildfire on social media. When Mukkamala voiced that he hoped to see students back in classrooms and to do so with masks in order to reduce the transmission of this airborne virus, his years of expertise were not heard by some who instead refuted his insight with violence and lies. 

“I thought that kids that were in the classroom should be masked and distanced so that we could improve the odds of keeping them in school and not be having kids end up going home and being on quarantine when half the classroom isn’t there like we were last year,” Mukkamala told The ‘Gander in a recent Zoom interview. “I wanted a better classroom experience for the students. And based on the science, yes, there is a benefit to keeping kids apart and having them masked when they’re in the classroom. It increases the odds of having that good experience.”

‘There is a Benefit’ 

Mukkamala presented his medical opinion as part of testimony at a Genesee County board meeting. The county, which was the first in the state to announce an order requiring masks be worn by students, staff, and volunteers in kindergarten through sixth-grade classrooms, eventually expanded the framework of the safety measure to include all students, school staff, and volunteers from pre-K through 12th grade.

The meeting Mukkamala spoke at featured demonstrations, and one of the demonstrators didn’t like what the doctor had to say, he surmised, sending a letter to his house and to his office. 

“It basically said that I came from India, and it was a land of dictators and I fled to this country, where we’re free, and how dare I try to make this country, like the country that I fled of India, which is a dictatorship,” Mukkamala said. “Clearly, lots of mistakes there.”

Mukkamala, who was actually born in Pittsburgh, was raised in Flint. As for India? It’s technically the largest democracy in the world. The author of the letter also wrote that masks are troubling to children, and that was the part of the message that really grabbed Mukkamala’s attention and keeps him steadfast in the fight to arm people with the most up-to-date safety measures when it comes to COVID-19.

“There is a benefit to doing the things that we talked about—masking and keeping kids apart,” he said. 

A Voice of Reason

Mukkamala said he continues to correct people’s misconceptions about the virus because he feels it’s important to champion to spread of information that will keep people safe. When people are in echo chambers of incorrect info, they are more inclined to believe that incorrect information, he said. 

The spread of that incorrect info has become commonplace on social media and through other channels over the course of the pandemic. Unfortunately, it can affect COVID-19 vaccine confidence as states such as Michigan continue to push for more vaccinations to keep people safe amid an increase in COVID-19 cases due in part to the Delta variant. 

In many situations, incorrect info is presented when people are unsure of the truth and seek to fill in the gaps of what they don’t know in an attempt to reason or better understand. 

Mukkamala says it’s important to be the counterpoint in situations like that. He compared it with people who say the planet is flat. If enough people say it, and no one counters with evidence, the conspiracy begins to grow. 

“I didn’t want opinions of some people to exist in a vacuum, with no counterpoint,” he said. 

Another concern is people intentionally spreading wrong information. This is something Mukkamala says isn’t surprising but is unfortunate and is derived from people looking for anything to support their claims. 

“I think that, just like anything, it’s supply and demand,” he said. “When there’s a demand for information, especially information that reinforces something that you want to believe, you will find it, right? People will supply that just like there are now there are doctors who are going to give testimony in legislative bodies about how the vaccine kills people and we should be using medications that haven’t yet been studied enough to meet the burden of proof, and yet, here we are having physicians testify to that effect and dissuading people from getting vaccinations when 95% of physicians have been vaccinated themselves. So, it’s a vocal minority that’s supplying what the demand is asking for, which is information that supports a conclusion, even though the conclusion is wrong.”

Setting the Record Straight about COVID-19

The doctor said he has seen several forms of false information regarding COVID-19, but one common one going back to the beginning of the pandemic is that the vaccine can mutate a person’s cells. 

“You don’t hear that much anymore because I think people have seen enough and reviewed, maybe, their high school biology books,” he joked. 

Another misconception he’s had to counter? That the three COVID-19 vaccines were produced too quickly. 

“None of that is true, right? The mRNA has been known for a long time, it’s been 20 years in development of trying to develop mRNA, and here we are,” he said. “And what I tell people is that, look, when COVID hit us, people worked around the clock. They weren’t punching the clock at 8 a.m. and leaving at 5 p.m., right? They’re working 24-hour shifts, not eight-hour shifts, to get this done because the urgency was there across the world. And so naturally that development is going to be exponentially increased when there’s that much attention.”

Despite the letter, Mukkamala said he doesn’t take messages like the one he received in August personally. Even if it makes him a target for such messages, he said it’s important for him to champion for the spread of information backed by science, even if it may make him a target of hate-filled messages. 

“It was a lot of vitriol and anger in that letter and I didn’t take it personally, but I learned something. There are many people around me and many sorts of minority groups within the country that experience that sort of anger and discrimination on a monthly if not weekly basis, and so it just gave me a little sample of what it was like to be in somebody else’s shoes that experiences that more often. And now I have more empathy.”