Oh Happy Day When COVID Ends...but a Bigger Test Is Coming

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the biggest test of our nation's strength and character.  That will come after, when we decide what we will do (or not) about the inequities revealed by the pandemic.

Based on how the U.S. responded to similar inequities after the last pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918-20, there's reason to expect we will fail the post-COVID-19 test, with terrible consequences for our country.

A great deal has been written and said about how some population groups have been hurt more deeply than others during the current pandemic; no single post could summarize all the evidence of such impacts. Here are just two examples:

  • Last summer, the COVID-19 Health Equity Advisory Group of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported that Black non-Hispanic residents and Hispanic residents in our Commonwealth have a three-times higher positive coronavirus case rate than white, non-Hispanic residents, and that Black and Hispanic residents also have higher rates of hospitalizations and deaths compared to white or Asian residents.
  • In the Fall 2020 edition of "Harvard Public Health," the magazine of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Madeline Drexler wrote, "Today's coronavirus pandemic is the only public health crisis in the last hundred years as profoundly disruptive to society as the 1918 flu.  And like the 1918 pandemic, it has unmasked persistent racial injustice.  According to the COVID Racial Data Tracker, one of the most reliable sources of data on racial disparities in today's catastrophe, as of September 1, 2020, COVID-19 had killed at least 36,320 Black people in the U.S.  A collaboration between the COVID Tracking Project and the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, the Racial Data Tracker also found that while Black people make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 22 percent of deaths in which race is known.  Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at 2.4 times the rate of white people."

The Spanish Flu killed somewhere between 50 million and 100 million around the world, including up to 850,000 in the U.S., about .81% of our population at the time.  Those deaths were a collective shock to the nation unlike anything else in history.  Yet, within a few years, the shock effects had worn off and Americans were reveling in the prosperity of the Roaring 20s.  

Long ago, I read somewhere that one reason we seemed to move on quickly from those 850,000 deaths was that immigrants, desperate for a new start in America, quickly replaced those who had been taken by the flu.

Today, the COVID-19 death toll in the US stands at around 489,000.  We don't know how much worse it will get.  Let's be hopeful, optimistic; let's say U.S. deaths will top off at 525,000.    

The U.S. could admit that number of immigrants in 2022, if it wanted to. (Maybe we should for reasons totally unrelated to COVID-19.)  And if we happened to do that, let us hope that, when 2023 rolls around, the U.S. is seriously addressing racial and economic injustices rather than mindlessly enjoying prosperity's rebirth.    

I'll end with an excerpt from a recent report by the Center for Employment Equity at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Written by Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, Rodrigo Dominguez-Villegas and Eric Hoyt, the report was titled, "The COVID-19 Recession: An Opportunity to Reform Our Low Wage Economy?"

"If the recovery from the COVID-19 recession follows the path of the 2007-2009 Great Recession, it will generate mainly low-wage, low quality jobs, and we as a nation will have embraced our past failings yet again.  The ability of the U.S. to respond to crises of any sort depends on the resiliency of its people and institutions.  If we do not make access to health care, sick and family leave, and living wages a social right before the next economic crisis -- whether it is financial, viral , or some new surprise -- we will have failed again to learn the shameful lessons of our own history.  If we do not disrupt the power dynamics that leave most workers exposed to insecurity and poverty level employment, we will leave our country vulnerable to economic and social collapse, perhaps now, certainly in future crises -- whether economic or political."


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