The coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color, in rates of infection and death. But the pandemic has also had less visible impact. For the second installment in an ongoing series, Oregon Quarterly talked to University of Oregon faculty members, alumni, and administrators for perspectives and reflections.
“What’s on your mind as you consider the effect of the pandemic on people of color?”
LITTLEJOHN: The pandemic has had devastating effects on people of color. COVID-19 diagnoses among Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people are nearly three times higher than diagnoses among whites. And not only are there striking differences in the rates of hospitalization among these groups, but Black people are also much more likely to succumb to COVID-19 than are whites. These disparities not only have health consequences but also may carry serious financial consequences because of racial differences in insurance coverage. Indeed, Black and Latinx people are less likely than whites to be insured across their lives.
GUTIERREZ: My mind immediately goes to the disparities among populations that are often forgotten by society. I'm thinking of those without housing, those with mental illness, foster youth, inmates in the correctional system, agricultural field workers, our nation’s sex workers . . . These are communities that disproportionately include people of color who are often disregarded in times of crisis. The health disparities experienced by these groups are deeply rooted in the racism that has founded our country. A global pandemic amplifies the daily stress of navigating oppressive systems. Sometimes just surviving to the next morning is a victory. Life should never be that way.
To change we have to put people's humanity and lives at the forefront, to recognize that all people are worthy and important. Systemic change for these communities will start with the funneling of resources to programs supporting healthy food distribution, educational resources, health care access for both the body and mind, employment support, and more. It’ll take a holistic approach to create long-lasting sustainable changes.
HARRIS: My father, Hiawatha Harris, MD, gave a speech at the UO in 1968: “Protecting Our Future in Oregon.” Earlier that year he and his Black psychiatrist colleagues were set to present the notion that racism is a disease; then “the most dangerous Negro in America” [Martin Luther King Jr.] was professionally assassinated, proving their point. Racism is still endemic in America, and people must still build resistance to all its mutations however innocuous they appear. I believe racism is a co-occurring disorder—both a mental illness and an addiction. Vectored by toxic, viral ideas which promote historical amnesia, the cures exist in keeping oneself strong in cultural, spiritual, historical, scientific, medical, and political literacy and awareness. When America suffers a cold, people of color experience pneumonia, or worse. In a pandemic like COVID-19, people of color experience medical apartheid, job loss, home loss, medical care loss, and leaders who cause suffering through spreading fear, lies, and distrust. We experience disproportionate deaths and disease, because we’re often on the frontlines, feeding America, caring for Americans, while others are privileged to work remotely in isolation. In a pandemic, as it always has been, we must care for ourselves, because we cannot depend on America to do it for us. We may love America, but America doesn’t always love us back.
NOAH: As a tribal citizen of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, I have had to stay away from my community in efforts of slowing the virus. While in Eugene, I monitor the cases on my reservation and surrounding tribal communities. My community currently suffers from lack of running water, inaccessible grocery stores, and poor health care made available to tribal citizens. Indigenous students in K-12 currently do not have access to stable Wi-Fi to complete their virtual studies. COVID-19 has uncovered the failing promises and poor relations between these tribal nations and the US government. Collectively, we must work together to change this.
ROSIEK: We are witnessing one of the most acute racial segregations of educational opportunity in living memory. Access to quality education in the US has always been stratified by race, family wealth, and immigration status. The pandemic has intensified these inequalities and disrupted many programmatic remedies we have had for addressing these inequalities.
As schooling has moved online, families with less access to internet and computer technology are at a disadvantage. For parents economically compelled to work, lack of childcare places their children at a disadvantage. Because racism and economic inequality are intertwined, these and many other effects fall more heavily on persons of color.
There are possibilities in this moment, however. The pandemic is demonstrating that we are capable of making bold changes to our schools to accommodate students in need. For example, in a few short weeks many districts found resources to provide all children with laptops or tablets. Similarly, many states found a way to do without controversial and expensive high-stakes standardized tests that exacerbate racial inequality and increase dropout rates. We are finding ways to prioritize student well-being and mental health in schools. Our responsibility is to learn from these experiences and do better going forward.
AKINDAYOMI: As a Black woman, Black professional, and Black parent in a predominately white state, city, and space, everything is on my mind, and—to be frank—I have not been afforded time to properly consider all options during this pandemic. I am concerned about my daughter’s experiences, especially as research shows disparities in our school systems regarding the discipline of Black children. I am worried about Black students at the UO who experience acts of racism and bias (e.g., microaggressions and lack of equitable access to information) in the classroom and in other facets of their collegiate journeys.
Learning of Black people being murdered and having to work at, or above, expectation has been emotionally taxing. When students share their interest or participation in activism, I immediately fear for their safety, as activism in a Black body—especially while in a white space—can be dangerous and deadly. Furthermore, I am concerned about out-of-state and lower-socioeconomic-status students who are working extremely hard to graduate from the UO, but due to financial hardships exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, are forced to seek alternative routes. This pandemic has revealed some ugly truths within our nation’s heart, mind, and institutions. To echo one of my student’s sentiments, “I hope that we leave this pandemic better than we entered it.”
Resources for members of the UO community affected by COVID-19
Students and employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 or believe they have been exposed are encouraged to review the COVID-19 exposure scenarios and guidance. Contact the Corona Corps Care Team for additional guidance and resources (541-346-2292).