As the world confronted the pandemic unleashed by COVID-19, new language emerged. “Social distance” transformed from Georg Simmel’s concept referring to social relationships between racial, gender, and economic groups to the 6-foot physical distance vital for stopping the virus spread. Concepts like “isolation” and “quarantine” took on new meaning. People grew comfortable with medical terms like “asymptomatic” or “incubation period.”
Yet, even as we faced an unprecedented and deadly global test, tragically familiar and stubbornly persistent disparities were amplified by the encounter with the pandemic. Alongside the new vocabulary, familiar concepts reasserted their relevance in phrases like “racial inequality,” “housing insecurity,” and “health disparities.” While these societal failures have always demanded action, the crucible of the pandemic has even more directly made them matters of life and death.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone, but it has certainly not affected everyone equally. Preexisting conditions in our nation’s communities have ensured that those already most vulnerable to depressed economic, educational, and health conditions were impacted the most. In the healthcare field, “social determinants of health” have emerged in recent years as a powerful way of connecting disparities in health to social inequities that exacerbate those disparities. In Memphis and Shelby County, as elsewhere, the roots of the unequal impact of COVID-19 can be found in inequalities that long predate the outbreak of the disease. Our community’s social determinants of health have amplified the effects of the pandemic on our most vulnerable neighbors.
This issue of the Hooks Institute Policy Papers addresses the varied ways COVID-19 has magnified and worsened racial and socioeconomic disparities in Shelby County and other communities. Beginning with housing, educational, and employment effects, and concluding with health disparities and the impact of COVID-19 mortality disparities on the preservation of wealth, each writer connects preexisting social circumstances to the travails of the pandemic. Offering a wide range of expertise, the papers recommend short-term interventions to the acute crises brought on by the pandemic and long-term preventative changes to address the underlying social deficiencies.
In “COVID-19 and Evictions in Memphis,” Andrew Guthrie, Courtnee Melton-Fant, and Katherine Lambert-Pennington provide staggering spatial representations of social marginalization and economic vulnerability in Shelby County, focusing on susceptibility to evictions. They note the ways in which the pandemic amplified housing insecurity but observe that the pandemic did not create that crisis; rather, it merely pushed those already struggling over the edge. They further note that with the removal of pandemic-related protections, evictions are likely to increase the deterioration of circumstances for the county’s most economically vulnerable, a group made up disproportionately of African Americans.
In “Race & COVID-19: Illuminating Inequities in Education,” Cardell Orrin and Kelsey Jirikils highlight how the pandemic more clearly revealed the vast disparities in resources available to students throughout Shelby County. Of note, as schools moved to virtual learning, disparities in access to technology ensured that some students would have difficulty in even accessing education at all. Further, despite increased needs due to the social isolation and trauma of the pandemic, students were unable to access mental health services that would have strengthened their ability to get the most out of schooling.
Elena Delavega and Gregory M. Blumenthal build on these themes in “COVID-19 and Work: Employment Disparities Magnified,” where they quantify the ways in which the pandemic’s work disruptions fell most harshly on the most vulnerable, again, a group made up disproportionately of racial and ethnic minorities. The pandemic exposed a divide in who could work from home (and thus maintain employment, health care, and oversee children in virtual school) and who could not. The authors critique the fact that workers deemed “essential” in terms of providing services for the more privileged were not provided protections and salaries consistent with such “essential” status.
In “The Power of Will – And Its Limits,” Daniel Kiel provides a slightly different perspective by examining the emergency policy responses to the pandemic’s most urgent social needs. A mortarium on evictions, free provision of technology for students, and expanded unemployment benefits were not new ideas when the pandemic arrived, but it took the shocks of COVID-19 to make them viable policy options. To Kiel, this demonstrated that solutions to longstanding social problems are possible, but only where there is sufficient public will and need, something that will be difficult to maintain as the pandemic subsides, but that is no less urgent.
Turning more directly to the health impacts of COVID-19, Albert Mosley discusses the social determinants of health in the age of the pandemic in “Through a Glass Darkly: Musings on the Harsh Realities of COVID-19.” Highlighting racial disparities in hospitalizations, mortalities, and vaccination rates, Mosley laments that such distressing statistics were entirely predictable given this community’s history with systemic racism which has perpetuated economic and educational disparities. In addition to bearing shortcomings within the healthcare system, COVID-19 provided a harsh mirror to the broader community on the topic of providing wellness, the most basic of human needs.
Finally, in “Life After Death: COVID-19’s Impact on the Wealth of African American Families,” Daphene McFerren describes the deterioration of wealth that results when individuals pass away without a will or proper direction as to how to distribute their estate, a problem made tragically more vital during the pandemic. Urging more attention to estate planning in the African American community, McFerren pushes for greater access to legal resources and a shift in community attitudes in order to stop the massive racial gap in net worth from growing even larger due to a loss of intergenerational wealth.
Cumulatively, these papers examine the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic augmented some of society’s most obstinate problems and each display how these problems are interconnected. While the pandemic has brought much suffering and further social division, it has also provided an undeniable perspective on the urgency of these lingering social problems. The recommendations here provide a starting point for meaningful discussions and effective treatment.
Daphene McFerren, JD Executive Director, Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change the University of Memphis
Elena Delavega, Ph.D. Professor, Department of Social Work the University of Memphis
Daniel Kiel, JD Associate Director, Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change FedEx Professor of Law, Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law the University of Memphis
Read the policy papers here.