How the COVID-19 pandemic exemplifies racism & inequalities

By now, we all know what coronavirus is: an infectious virus that attacks the respiratory system. This post is the first in a series about COVID-19 (a.k.a coronavirus), from its origins to the various ways it has affected our collective lives. In this series, members of the Ward lab will tackle topics such as globalization, equity and justice, and racism and their interactions with coronavirus.

By: Akilah Chatman 

Akilah advocates for environmental justice with a focus on accessibility and equity.

The suffering we experience due to COVID-19 is not uniform. It has not been the great equalizer, rather it has exacerbated the very large inequalities that already today exist in society; racism and the wealth gap to name a few. We are all suffering from COVID-19 with extremely different outcomes.

Racism and inequality relative to COVID-19 plays out in several ways. . .  

  1. Increased xenophobia towards to Asian community
  2. Minority populations dying from COVID-19 at rates higher than their percent of the population
  3. Indigenous tribes being denied funding and aid
  4. Time and space for the BLM resurgence 

Xenophobia against people of Asian descent has increased throughout the world, but especially in America as the Trump Administration has termed the pandemic as the Chinese disease. Referring to COVID-19 as the Chinese disease places the blame not only on the Chinese government, but also the Chinese people. We have seen many ignorant people attempt to get people they identify as Chinese (aka all Asian people) to personally pay for their ‘crimes against humanity’ through harassment and sometimes violence. Yet we have seen examples of groups of Asian people getting together to sew masks or serve food; they want to help their communities battle this virus. Hopefully this helps them to be seen well in the public eye and makes spaces safer for them, but I must point out that they’re doing their part to help fix a problem they shouldn’t be held accountable for (Gibson, 2020). The work they have done has positively affected so many lives, so it is heartbreaking to acknowledge that is also a preservation tactic for them. 

Before COVID-19 reached the United States there were many speculations that it didn’t affect people with melanin, and if it did it wasn’t as severe. Once it did reach the United States what we found was that actually more Black people were being infected and dying, and at disproportionate rates for the population. This is where systematic racism has made this unnecessarily more challenging for the Black community. Through a variety of initiatives such gerrymandering, segregation, redlining and more we have made these communities poor by design. Members of these communities make up a large percentage of essential workers; health care providers, food delivery people, mail services people, gas stations attendants, and grocery store clerks to name a few. These workers are viewed as disposable, and a means to an end to jump start the economy. Many of these jobs don’t provide quality insurance or any insurance at all. People in these communities are being forced to leave their homes to be underpaid, undervalued, and put themselves and their loved ones at risk, all in the name of a capitalistic system that values their labour and not their lives.

When we look at the fact that a test for coronavirus is more than three thousand dollars and treatment is more than one hundred thousand dollars we see something really terrifying. At first we think “oh that’s why we have insurance, to cover the unaffordable costs of medical care.” Well, I’m here to highlight that not everyone has access to insurance and not all insurance policies are created equally to cover such high costs. What this means is that a large part of the US population can’t afford to get tested for this, let alone receive treatment for it. This is the reality for poorer communities including the Black, Asian, and Hispanic communities. This means a number of things; 1. The reported numbers for COVID-19 are incorrect and aren’t representative for specific communities and 2. Many of the deaths in poor minority communities are completely preventable. Right now we are watching the government choose to blatantly ignore these populations in need and unfortunately they don’t even have it the hardest. 

Indigenous tribes across the United States to this date have not received any funding, aid, or tests promised to them. Instead have received body bags (Folley, 2020). Our government has let it be known that they won’t help the people whose land we stole, and they don’t care that this will result in massive numbers of them dying. 

They have no remorse about it. This is unacceptable. 

Throughout the world indigenous populations are suffering. These are people who depend on community support, such as large traditional gatherings, harvests, and multigenerational housing, and self isolation leaves them unable to get the help they need from their community. Indigenous peoples experience higher rates of communicable and noncommunicable diseases, inadequate access to healthcare, stigma and discrimination in healthcare, and lack of essential services and preventive measures like sanitation (Nuorgam, 2020). These factors, as well as the socio-economic marginalization they experience, leaves them very vulnerable to COVID-19. Yet worldwide we find that the governments’ surrounding them aren’t giving them the aid that they need.

These communities deserve better and now is the time for us to work together for the collective betterment of everyone. Quarantine has shown that when we have the time, we do take care of ourselves and our communities. With all the time spent at home we have been able to reflect on and call out injustices, and that has been evident in the recent rapid growth of the Black Lives Matters movement. The BLM movement began in 2013 as a response to the murder of Trayvon Martin. In the seven years since we have seen a steady growth in support for the movement and outrage for police brutality as thousands of Black people have died at the hands of police. On May 29th, a couple months into quarantine, George Floyd was murdered by police. With the momentum already building, and a lot more free time we had the catalyst for a renewed Civil Rights movement. After an American history length trend of police brutality against Black bodies, people in every state and at least 18 countries have been protesting everyday for more than a month! And these protests don’t seem to be slowing down. 

So what’s different about George Floyds murder compared to Trayvon Martin, and countless others throughout history? 

We were angry and outraged then, we are angry and outraged now. The difference is we don’t have a job to go back to on Monday, so we can protest for more than just the weekend. We are bound to this capitalistic system designed to make us work to survive on an endless loop; 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Monday through Friday. Except that’s a gross underrepresentation for the lived realities for poor minority folk who often find themselves working two, three and even more jobs to still not be able to pay their bills. When we now have the time and space to look beyond just ends-meet we can reflect on the serious injustices we all face. It almost seems as if the system was designed this way. Without guaranteed things such as universal healthcare, universal base income, and accessible public infrastructure and transportation we are forced to work endlessly in hopes that we can provide these for ourselves and family. Can you now see why people argue against these matters? The lack of them keeps us bound to a system where we don’t even have the time to fight for our own rights. But we are fighting, and we are making changes. The people really do have the power, and we can use that power to create a system that cares for everyone equally and equitably regardless of race, socioeconomic status, religion, sexuality, age, and disability. 

So ask yourself, would we have seen a renewal in BLM and our battle for racial equity if not for the global pandemic of COVID-19?  A scenario where minority and lower social economic populations are increasing their exposure to COVID-19 in protests, in order to combat these disturbing social injustices. 

Gibson, A. (2020, April 12). Vietnamese-owned nail salons donate thousands of masks, gloves, more to hospitals. Retrieved June 15, 2020, from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/vietnamese-owned-nail-salons-donate-thousands-masks-gloves-more-hospitals-n1180291

Folley, A. (2020, May 06). Native health center says it received body bags after it asked for supplies to fight coronavirus. Retrieved June 15, 2020, from https://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/496325-native-health-center-says-it-received-body-bags-when-it-asked-for

Nuorgam, A. (2020). COVID-19 and Indigenous peoples For Indigenous Peoples. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/covid-19.html 

Welcome to OUR Experiment in Mentorship

First, Welcome!

So, this ‘blog’ exists out of a half-baked idea that I’ve developed over the past couple years (errr. . . ~12 years now) in which I’ve been consciously trying to mentor undergraduate students. I should clarify, the twelve years includes my graduate school, post grad, and now early-faculty career mentorship. While you could make an argument that not all of those years can be considered ‘conscious mentorship’, I have data (personal observation ofc), and so I should analyze it, and make use of the results.

The findings you ask (well some of them) . . .

Not all mentorship is created the same, and thinking so is dangerous!

Younger you probably sucked as a mentor, and that’s not great, but probably ok!

Letting students clean your glassware or watch you play scientist isn’t mentorship. I would argue it’s not even opportunity.

Not everyone is ok with just going to the field and collecting data

Having students reflect on their journey as a growing scientist is critical, having them practice empathy and gain perspective, even more-so.

You as a mentor reflecting, practicing empathy, and gaining perspective . . . . Well now we’re getting somewhere, eh?

I’ve arrived at the idea that simulating training opportunities is a half measure for mentors who are afraid students will mess something up, or worse fear their students will outgrown them by exceeding beyond measure. Perhaps one of the first red flags a mentor can raise is one where they think their research ‘too important’ for an undergrad to mess it up. So being one who loves watching people screw things up*. . . I’ve decided to create a lab blog where students can legitimately practice the communication skills they will so desperately need as professionals.

This space exists as a small chainlink-fenced-in-playground for me and the students of my lab. A playground because we will explore this space, test and develop our character, and sometimes step in dog sh!t. Chainlink-fenced because we can see through it, and from the safety of our insular little lab group shout, whisper, and rattle at the fence as we see fit. All while being shielded from an often harsh world beyond. Small, because every one of our students who contributes here will surely outgrow this space. After all, that is the goal 😉

Join us here for various attempts at communicating science. Students will share their research updates, analysis of current events, and weigh in on scientific debates. Look out for our obligatory COVID posts, murder hornet musings, and the occasional deeper dive into what it’s like to be an undergraduate scientist in today’s world.

From time to time I’ll add my $0.02, and discuss mentorship, higher education, STEM, conservation bio, or some cool news from our lab!

Thanks for dropping bye! We hope to see you again soon!

*Disclaimer: it’s not so much the messing it up that I enjoy, although its sometimes good for a chuckle. Instead, it’s the observation that students when given the space to try new things, experiment, fail, reflect and try again will grow in ways you never considered. That unpredictable growth? That’s a future career, a dynamic problem solver, or a trans-disciplinary bridge builder. Now we mentors just need to practice navigating the failure, reflection, and cultivation of an environment where students want to try again.