"The virus has come for us all"
Dr. Karin Edwards
There’s an African proverb that says, “A mind, once stretched, never returns to its original state.” I would like to suggest a corollary for the COVID-19 era: A society, stretched by a pandemic, cannot return to its original state.
Our collective response to the novel coronavirus outbreak resembles the character of the American nation itself -- which is to say, it has brought to the fore both the best and worst aspects of the human spirit. We have seen selfless acts of generosity, kindness, and self-sacrifice; and we have seen foolish displays of bravado, risk-taking and willful ignorance.
And we have seen, as we always do in times of crisis, the worst consequences of the pandemic fall upon members of marginalized communities.
Amid the chaotic landscape of life during a pandemic, one undisputed fact stands out: No one is beyond the reach of COVID-19. The novel coronavirus kills rich, poor, black, white, brown, straight, queer, conservative, and liberal people alike, with elegant precision. It respects neither boundaries nor borders, neither status nor privilege. The virus has come for us all.
Thus it is that, during widespread suffering, we have seen an outburst of goodwill and unity that evokes the best memories of the period immediately following the September 11 attacks. People are sewing protective masks in their homes. Neighbors are checking up on each other, offering to make shopping trips on behalf of the most vulnerable. Friends and loved ones are reaching out to each other, across the distance, just to offer words of love and encouragement. Every day, we see the outpouring of gratitude and appreciation for the unflagging efforts of front-line health care workers.
At the Cascade Campus of Portland Community College, where I am campus president, the acts and gestures of love and support are enough to bring a tear to my eye. The Cascade Food Pantry -- which distributes thousands of pounds of food per month in the best of times -- after being forced to shut its doors, has arranged to mail grocery store gift cards to needy students in lieu of food. Prior to PCC closing its physical facilities, staff rushed to get laptops and other necessary pieces of technology in the hands of students so that they could continue their studies from their homes. Our Campus Learning Garden staff are bagging and distributing fresh produce to students. Faculty, staff, and students alike have set up networks of support in order to stay connected.
And all of us who are staying home are, to one degree or another, sacrificing mobility, income, and all the social interactions that help define the human experience, all to “flatten the curve” and protect those most vulnerable to COVID-19.
With all this altruism going on, one might be forgiven for thinking that everyone is experiencing the impact of the pandemic equally -- but that’s not the case. In reality, COVID-19 has exposed for all to see the fundamental cracks in our society, and exacerbated the divides that have been part of our culture from the very beginning.
Let’s start with the most glaring, and tragic, iniquity that the virus has revealed. If you are an American of African descent, you are nearly three times as likely to die from COVID-19 than the population at large. Why? Because primary co-morbidities of COVID-19 -- diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease -- those pre-existing conditions which raise mortality rates in conjunction with the virus, are present at higher rates in the African American population. While the virus is hitting black folks harder than any other demographic group, African Americans are not alone: Latinx Americans and Native Americans are also succumbing to COVID-19 at higher rates than Americans of European descent.
The reasons for the disproportionate mortality rates among people of color have their roots in the systemic inequality and institutional racism that define life for marginalized communities. Intergenerational poverty means decreased access to healthy foods. People of color are more likely to live in densely populated areas, and in multi-generational households, which makes practicing social distancing more difficult. People of color are more likely to work in low-paying jobs that don’t offer health coverage.
If you’re poor, it’s more likely that you need public transit to get to work. If you’re poor, you’re less likely to have a job that can be done from home, and less likely to possess the technology to do it. If you’re poor, you’re more likely to have a job that requires repeated contact with other people in public places, and doesn’t offer paid sick leave.
We have before us, all of us together, both an opportunity and a decision. We have the opportunity to not let things return to normal, because “normal” isn’t good enough. We have the opportunity to address the systemic inequality and institutional racism that mean -- among a great many other things -- that right now, in 2020, in the midst of widespread suffering, some people are more likely to die than others because of the color of their skin. We have the opportunity, at long last, to demand full humanity for every single person. We have the opportunity to loosen our grip on the past and look toward the future we want to build.
As for the decision? Well, I’m ready to make it. Are you?
Dr. Karin Edwards is president of the Cascade Campus of Portland Community College.