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Erika George: Developing a more equitable society will help fight off future pandemics

Complexion complicates how different communities have experienced the burdens of COVID-19.

To avoid absolute social isolation while social distancing I’ve spent more time on social media than ever before keeping in touch with my family, friends, and colleagues in digital spaces. It also allows me to look back at the time before.

The Facebook “memories” function has become a favorite feature of mine. It recently reminded me of where I was and what I was doing before COVID-19 so dramatically changed so many of our lives. Posts to my timeline from around this time last year included photos of me doing some of the things that I find most fulfilling as an educator — facilitating community conversations with lifelong learners.

As director of the Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah I bring leading humanities scholars, public figures, faculty, and students together for open, unscripted conversations to enrich our understanding of our common humanity and the world we share. In Spring 2020 I hosted Ibram X. Kendi, founder and director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research and author of “How to Be An Antiracist,” and Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code and author of “Brave, Not Perfect.”

When memories of these conversations reappeared in my timeline, I was reminded of just how relevant Kendi’s data on the persistence of racial discrimination and Saujani’s initiative to increase the presence of women in certain professions have been to our present moment and will remain as we move through and past the pandemic.

It became clear relatively early in the pandemic that complexion was complicating how different communities experienced the burdens of the disease. The disproportionate impact of premature death fell most heavily on people of color across the United States with existing racial inequality making coronavirus even more deadly. Utah is no exception.

According to the Utah Health Department, Latinos make up 14.2% of the population but roughly 22% of cases, Pacific Islanders account for 2.5% of Utah’s cases but are only 1.6% of the population. The health status of American Indians in Utah has lagged that of the general population and has led the state in hospitalizations for COVID-19 per 1,000 people, according to the Utah Department of Health and the Office of American Indian/Alaskan Native Affairs.

Infection rates aside, the scapegoating of certain communities for coronavirus based on racist stereotypes has also inflicted harm. The Asian American Pacific Islander Emergency Response Network received over 3,000 reports of COVID-19 related hate crimes in 2020.

The pandemic has also had a disproportionate impact on women of all colors. The responsibility of caring for family members is often assumed by women. Women have suffered pandemic related job losses at higher rates. As a proportion of their employment before the pandemic, fewer Black and Latino women are working now than any other demographic according to federal government data. Women’s employment is lagging behind men’s employment across all ethnic groups. Described as a “she-cession” or the “pink collar pandemic recession” there are legitimate concerns that the current economic downturn will turn back the clock on advances women were making at work.

I’ve been privileged to work from the relative safety of my home in large part because of the work of people employed in essential functions. People of color are overrepresented in the essential workforce. They are exposed to increased risk of contracting coronavirus and experience reduced ability to practice safe social distancing. Researchers have documented that Black Americans are more likely to have the preexisting conditions such as obesity, diabetes, asthma, or heart disease that increase the risk of death from coronavirus.

Attributing comorbidities in communities of color to poor personal choices to account for the racial disparities being documented in coronavirus deaths, ignores how racially influenced assumptions impact opportunity and access for people of color —t o safe employment, to stable housing, to healthy diets and to unbiased health care. These and other social determinants of good health are unevenly distributed in our society. Complexion would appear to correlate with protection from infection.

To be sure, thousands of White Americans have also died from the virus, but the pace at which people of color are dying in our country requires us to recognize the impact of inequality on public health. The recent decision by Utah health care leaders to declare systemic racism a public health crisis is a wise and welcome one.

As we appear to be nearing a point where the end of this pandemic is within sight it is important for us we remember that the suffering of so many did not need to be so severe.

Looking forward, we cannot remain blind to the ways racism and sexism in our society played a role in unnecessary suffering. We should not lose sight of our shared humanity. We can and must do better. I believe it is the best interest of all of us to advance a more fair and equitable society for all — one that will be more resilient when we are called upon to confront the challenges to come.

(Photo courtesy University of Utah) Erika George, a law professor at the University of Utah, has been named the new director of the U.'s Tanner Humanities Center.

Erika George directs the Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah and is the Samuel D. Thurman Professor of Law and the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law. She is a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation and a member of the Executive Board of the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights.

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