As noted by former President Obama last Tuesday, “pandemics have a way of cutting through a lot of noise.” We’ve seen just that in the past week, as experts across the country have used emerging data to illustrate that COVID-19 is not some “great equalizer” as initially mythologized, but rather has exacerbated America’s severe and longstanding disparities along lines of race and class.
While recognizing these disparate impacts and structural inequities is a great first step towards progress, we must not let it be the last. Let’s prove that we’ve learned something from this crisis by doing something about it.
Countless studies and headlines this week have revealed a pattern as unsurprising as it is disturbing: Crises like COVID-19 disproportionately impact marginalized communities. This is far from revelatory – just ask folks from Flint, Mich., or New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. Although we describe some disasters as “natural,” there’s nothing natural about physical and institutional structures that shift the largest burden of those disasters onto the people already living on the margins.
I personally experienced the privilege of this shift just a few weeks ago. Shortly after testing positive for COVID, I was on a conference call with leaders from the school in Durham where I used to teach discussing our school’s response to student food insecurity during school closures. While in the middle of this discussion, my phone was dinging off the hook; friends and family members who had learned of my diagnosis were reaching out to send me and my wife food deliveries. Why did I have immediate access to fresh tacos and BBQ brought to my doorstep while we were having a hard time securing a ham sandwich for our students and their families? I’ll give you a hint: It’s not because I’ve worked harder in life to put food on the table, because the opposite is true.
So now what? Now that we’ve identified these disparities, how do we avoid being stuck in the “paralysis of analysis” that so often leaves us doing more armchair philosophizing than actual work? To start, we should shift from wondering whether or not there are ways that we can serve our community to assuming that there are and actively seeking them out. In the recent words of the Dalai Lama, “prayer is not enough;” this moment demands more. Whether it’s through your church, local nonprofits or your own personal skills and resources, there is work that you can do today that will make a positive impact in the life of someone disproportionately affected by this crisis. Charitable opportunities abound if we seek them.
But charity is far from justice. If we are to make any real progress towards a more equitable society, one that doesn’t depend on the spotty generosity of the privileged, we must respond to this unprecedented crisis with unprecedented action. Just as this pandemic affects us collectively, we must respond collectively. Let’s make our systems of education and housing “great equalizers” rather than pretending that a virus will do so. Let’s pay our foundational workers as essential rather than just calling them such. Let’s advocate, organize and vote with a heightened awareness that lives literally depend on it.
If COVID-19 can teach us anything, it’s that our individual well-being is fundamentally interwoven with the well-being of our community. Even in physical separation, our collective destinies remain inseparable. Ample analysis has reminded those of us privileged enough to have forgotten that when disaster strikes, it’s those already on the margins who are hit the hardest. And ultimately, we’re all worse off in a society that lets that happen. So now that COVID has cut through the noise, let’s move beyond analysis and get active.
Zack Kaplan is a second-year student at Duke Law School studying the intersection of education, racial equity, and law. He is a former 5th grade teacher and current board member at Maureen Joy Charter School in East Durham. His previous article about battling COVID-19 can be found here.