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Science and Innovations

Weekly Update On The Science Of COVID-19: Public Health And Social Justice

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The coronavirus pandemic has laid open dramatic inequalities in the United States. People of color are more likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19, and researchers say that’s because of longstanding issues with racism, poverty, and preexisting health challenges. Lisa Hardy is a medical anthropologist at Northern Arizona University who surveyed hundreds of people about their experiences during the pandemic. In this week’s update on the science of COVID-19, she spoke with KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny about the close links between the pandemic and social justice. 

When the pandemic started you got on the phone and started doing interviews. What motivated you to do this research?

Well, at the heart of all of my research there are two questions usually for me. One of them is, how do people respond to and understand crisis and illness… and also social justice. How do different outcomes impact different populations, and how can social scientists along with others respond together to crisis in ways that reduce those inequalities?

Okay, so let’s talk a little more about that. So what does the coronavirus pandemic have to do with social justice?

One example is we can think about people here in Flagstaff walking around resisting wearing masks…. and yet an hour or two away, if that, we have people living on tribal lands who have worse outcomes than those in Flagstaff do…. One of the things we can think about is…. living with poverty and lack of access to jobs and resources, lack of access to clean water and clean air… You take all of these things as a setting and then a contagious virus is going to impact a population differently because of that setting and that landscape. What we’re seeing now is that your life expectancy depends on where you live, your economic status, your identity, and inequality really. These things are so clear now. I think that is part of why people found the courage to join a social uprising like Black Lives Matter. 

You’re saying that it’s not a coincidence that we have these social uprisings at the same time as the pandemic?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all, I think they’re intertwined. I think people—public health professionals and medical anthropologists but also people living with these inequalities have known this for as long as it’s been happening: that their lives are more at risk, and some lives are more risk than others, whether that’s from policing or from a contagion or other things that create situations with unequal outcomes…. I find it hopeful that awareness about inequity and health and life has become so clear right now…. My hope is social movements and people’s responsibility to one another and people’s connectedness with one another will lead to social change. I don’t know exactly what that will look like or how it will happen or how long it will take, but I’m hopeful about people’s increased awareness about inequality.

What’s a takeaway that you’ve gotten out of this research so far, something that surprised you or stuck with you?

One of the other things that I think is really beautiful about doing these interviews, people share immense pain and sadness during the interviews, and then most people we talk to also—I find it really heartening—share a really deep desire to connect with others, and concern for other people’s wellbeing… I think even though there’s all this division—and everyone we talked to talked about the division and the fear and the difficulty that’s happening nationally—underneath that I also see a lot of beautiful desire for connection and a lot of concern about people who might not be faring as well…  That’s been a really beautiful part of participating in this.

Lisa Hardy, thank you so much for speaking with me and take care.

Thank so much for covering this.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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