Equity Implications of COVID-19

May 18, 2020

On a personal level, juggling a global pandemic with everyday school or work, maintaining relationships, physical and mental health, and all the other tasks we must do in our daily lives can be difficult.  On the macro level, our community faces the even larger challenge of combating COVID-19 while continuing work on the issues the world faced before the pandemic. Now, we must learn to address sustainable development and equity concerns in a new landscape. The pandemic draws attention away from all other concerns, but equity challenges persist and are often magnified by this health crisis. As one of the three pillars of sustainability, equity implications of COVID-19 must be scrutinized to improve the equity aspect of sustainability strategies in the future.  As COVID-19 unfortunately intensifies the effects of often unaddressed problems such as racial inequities and environmental injustice, I hope a greater number of people will become concerned with those areas of work in the future and realize just how detrimental inequitable societies are to all people’s wellbeing.  

The NAACP drafted a list of general equity implications of COVID-19 which included concerns that “certain populations face differential exposure and extensive corresponding implications.” Immigrants, people in prison, and homeless people face higher risk of the virus. The list also notes the challenges of frontline workers. Many cannot afford to miss work due to lost pay, however, they are being “extensively exposed.” There are possible risks to democracy caused by COVID-19 impacts. Collecting Census data may be challenging, and especially for older citizens, voting may feel hazardous. The document goes on to list numerous implications of the pandemic, which all highlight areas that lack adequate support or organization in our current system.

One clear example of an unaddressed issue that has become magnified by COVID-19 is the country's existing health disparities. Numerous articles have detailed the pandemic’s disproportionate effect on people of color. The New York Times reported on COVID-19’s effect on African Americans:

  • In Milwaukee, black people are 39 percent of the population but 71 percent of the deaths. In Chicago, black people are 30 percent of the population but 56 percent of the deaths. In New York, which has the country’s highest numbers of confirmed cases and deaths, black people are twice as likely to die as white people.  

These numbers are astounding, but the truth about health disparities before the pandemic is equally frightening. The CDC reports that compared to non-Hispanic whites, African American adults are:

  • 3 times as likely to die from asthma
  • 44% more likely to die from a stroke 
  • 72% more likely to be diabetic
  • 25% more likely to die from heart disease

These numbers illustrate the reality of a community that has been in a health crisis for a long time - not just during this pandemic. The country’s current situation magnifies an ongoing problem that has been neglected. 

The health crisis is just one of many equity concerns that COVID-19 is exacerbating. The issues highlighted in the NAACP’s equity implications document reveal weaknesses in our criminal justice system, immigration system, and level of support for workers. It is upsetting that these circumstances have been allowed to continue up until this point, but perhaps the sudden media coverage of the inequity allows an opening for action and change. 

Ambassador Sarah Mendelson notes, “today is precisely the time to think radically differently about a variety of societal, economic, and political issues. . .  . the pandemic could lead to long-standing behaviour change and that could in turn help deliver the SDGs.” She writes, “now is the time to think practically about how to advance what were previously considered either radical shifts in policy or pigeon-holed issues of comparatively marginal importance.” While these issues are still salient in the eyes of the public, it may be possible to enact more sweeping changes. Mendelson emphasizes, using this time wisely to craft clear goals and plans of action, “Once we are up and out of the house, we will need to make this agenda accessible for a world that will need deep, profound, and sustained recovery.” This is a pivotal time to focus on communicating the importance of the sustainability strategies that seemed impossible to enact in the past.  

Most people involved in sustainability work often think about strategies for improving our communities and ending inequitable and unsustainable practices. Although this is a challenging time, as Mendelson highlights, it may be one of the most crucial moments for action in the coming years.  More citizens may be ready for radical changes to our world, and it is critical to be equipped with possible plans and solutions when opportunities to act arise. In an unfortunate way, the virus may have brought about a higher level of awareness of the need for sustainable development work. 

As students and faculty at Georgia Tech, there are many ways to join the discussion and efforts surrounding an equitable and sustainable future. This summer, 44 students will be interning with partner organizations through the SLS Internship Program and the Georgia Smart Community Corps Program, supporting their COVID-19 and ongoing sustainability work around Atlanta and Georgia. Organizations and networks exist to connect people interested in creating a sustainable future and aid them in working together on projects and ideas. RCE Greater Atlanta, a regional sustainability network connecting members in the Greater Atlanta area, is one such group. Anybody can participate in the RCE network and learn about or work on sustainability-oriented projects. Many on-campus organizations such as Students Organizing for Sustainability, Engineers for a Sustainable World, Energy Club, and The Campus Kitchen Project, address sustainability and equity concerns, and offer an opportunity to engage with and work on improving such issues. Additionally, multiple groups and publications have offered ideas about how to help others in the area. Atlanta Magazine published an article explaining “How you can help those in need in Atlanta.” listing ways to support the people who are homeless or food-insecure, as well as essential workers. The Atlanta Community Food Bank also describes on their website how people can support their efforts to distribute food. Whether through reading, service, or joining an organization, there are opportunities to learn about and engage with others surrounding the efforts to build a more sustainable future - and there has never been a more pressing need for work in this area than now.

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