I’m proud to be able to help Dr. Hasan Gokal start down the road toward justice and begin putting his life back together. The damage he suffered to his reputation and the injustice he experienced shine a light on the pernicious way stereotypes and broad generalizations about ethnic groups play a role in institutional decisions that can inflict lasting harm. Too often, the flawed logic behind these actions goes unnoticed while lives are destroyed in their wake.
Back in December 2020, Dr. Gokal was on the front lines of the nation’s Covid-19 mobilization. Working for the Harris County Public Health department, his days were spent jabbing arms with the desperately need vaccine. The Moderna vaccine presented special challenges because – once thawed to room temperature – the clock starts ticking and the entire vial goes bad in a matter of hours.
On this particular day, Dr. Gokal had an open vial of the Moderna vaccine with 10 leftover doses and no one on the waiting list. Following protocols, he began searching for individuals in the area who could quickly show up to receive the vaccine. And that’s where his troubles began.
Dr. Gokal is a Pakistani-American who lives in the Sugarland area of Houston, a community with an enormous South Asian population. These are Americans who look like him, with similar surnames and shared religious and cultural touchstones.
Not surprisingly, those who accepted his offer to get the vaccine were South Asian immigrants. Dr. Gokal filled out the required paperwork and followed all the rules, but when his supervisors saw the list of names he presented, the knee-jerk reaction was suspicion. Dr. Gokal lost his job, had his professional reputation tarnished, and was subjected to criminal charges.
While Houston is an inspiring melting pot of cultures, it’s not surprising that most of us tend to live in bubbles – it’s just human nature. But sheltered lives create the climate for the kind of injustice that Dr. Gokal experienced.
As the majority population and holder of power, Anglos can spend entire days – lifetimes even – interacting solely with those who look like them. They can help people who look just like themselves every single day without any motive or agenda, and they don’t get fired or accused of committing a crime. Likewise, when a member of the majority community does something wrong – commits a crime, an act of terrorism or displays extreme religious or political fanaticism – the broader community and popular culture view it as an isolated incident by an individual who does not represent the entire group.
Dr. Gokal’s case is a reminder that other groups don’t have the same experience. Too often, we’re painted with a broad brush based on an accumulation of isolated incidents. Popular culture and the news media don’t help in this regard, and the entire group ends up being treated with suspicion.
Nine months later, few noticed when the criminal charges and professional allegations were unceremoniously dropped. Dr. Gokal is now working to restore his good name. Our lawsuit seeking damages from Harris County Public Health is part of that process.
National and international media have been following this important story – including CNN “Texas doctor fired for using leftover Covid-19 vaccine doses sues county for discrimination”; KPRC-TV NBC-2 “Former doctor accused of stealing COVID vaccines now suing Harris County”; the Houston Chronicle “Dr. Hasan Gokal, cleared of vaccine theft charge, sues Harris County for racial discrimination” ; Houston Public Media – NPR “Doctor Accused Of Stealing COVID Vaccines Sues Harris County For More Than $1 Million” ; USA Today “Doctor fired for giving leftover COVID-19 vaccines to people with ‘Indian’ names sues for discrimination” ; Winnipeg Free Press “A roundup of COVID-19 developments for Tuesday Sept. 21, 2021”; and News Indian Express “US doctor cleared of COVID-19 vaccine theft sues Harris County.” We hope they stick with this important story to the end.
Joe Ahmad is co-founder of Houston-based Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing, or AZA, where his practice focuses on legal issues surrounding executive employment. He is an active member of the South Asian Bar Association.