Seeking to build an administration that “looks like America”, President-elect Joe Biden has put together a transition team of over 500 people that reflects America’s diversity and priorities. Americans of Indian descent feature prominently on the team: nearly two dozen of them have been tapped. Some will play key roles in tackling the country’s immediate crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic. After months of mismanagement and denial starting at the top, America now has more than 10 million cases and 2,41,000 deaths.
Joe Biden had made it clear that tackling Covid-19 would be his administration’s first task, and an advisory board is already in place. Three of the board’s 13 members are Indian Americans — a testament to the talent pool available in a demographic category that accounts for barely a per cent of the US population.
Biden has chosen Dr Vivek Murthy, former surgeon general in the Obama administration, as one of the board’s three co-chairs. Atul Gawande and Celine Gounder, both of whom are as proficient in the medical field as in journalism, have been appointed advisors.
The three have varied backgrounds but have something important in common. They were brought up as people of colour in an America that didn’t merely pose challenges for people like them, but also presented opportunities.
Murthy (43) was born in Yorkshire, England, to immigrants from Karnataka. His parents moved to Miami when he was three. A stellar academic career followed — he is an alum of both Harvard and Yale — and his 2014 appointment as surgeon general, a man in charge of nearly 7,000 federal medical workers, was welcomed in chorus by the medical community.
Politicians had a different view. Murthy had treated thousands of gunshot wounds as a doctor and felt strongly about the menace of gun violence. The National Rifle Association and senate Republicans held up his confirmation for nearly a year because of his views.
He was eventually confirmed, but Donald Trump suddenly woke up to the fact that Murthy was an Obama appointee and sacked him summarily in 2017. No reason given.
But the reasons were clear. Trump sees ‘Obama people’ as architects of the dystopia that he presents to his base when seeking their votes. A terrifying world where guns are taken away; where people are imprisoned in their homes because of indefinite lockdowns; where science wins.
Murthy has already made it clear that he prefers a targeted approach to restrictions — for the worst affected communities — rather than a blanket countrywide shutdown. He had earlier said that the US has the technology and the resources to battle Covid, what it required was leadership. He now finds himself in a leadership position.
“We have had a president who has fomented division and chaos, attacked doctors and science in the midst of the worst public health crisis in a century But we have turned him out and given decency a chance”, tweeted Atul Gawande after Biden became President-elect. His role on the advisory board gives him the opportunity to help, in his own words, “save lives and livelihoods”.
A surgeon by training, Gawande, 55, is widely known for his authoritative and lucid writing on medicine. He is the son of immigrant parents from Maharashtra and Gujarat, born in Brooklyn, educated at Oxford and Stanford.
He’s so good at his job, said Malcolm Gladwell, Gawande’s colleague at the New Yorker where both are staff writers, that Gladwell can hardly get a piece into the magazine on medical science.
Gawande’s 2014 book, Being Mortal, is especially relevant now — it talks about care for the aged. A particularly vulnerable section of the population in the times of Covid.
Celine Gounder’s father is from Tamil Nadu, while her mother is from France. But her American identity is shaped by her work on infectious diseases and her ability to talk about health in a manner that people understand through her writing and films. In 2017, People magazine named Gounder one of ’25 Women Changing the World.’
Given that the pandemic is the new administration’s top priority, these are the people we are likely to hear of and hear from, over the next few weeks. However, there are several Indian Americans in key positions in the transition who have also gone to work already.
Arun Majumdar, from Stanford University, has a particularly sensitive job. He heads the team that will deal with the department of energy. The department that designs, tests, and manufactures nuclear weapons.
Kiran Ahuja will head the office of the personnel management team. A role she had in her stint in the Obama administration, where she led the White House initiatives on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
The commerce department has Arun Venkatraman, another Obama official making a comeback. Venkatraman works in government relations at Visa, and is seen as someone who will be a bridge between the administration and Wall Street.
A host of other Indian names will become familiar to Indians over the coming weeks, all promoted to their positions for their merit, rather than their colour. They will give us a glimpse of what today’s America looks like.