By Marnie Muñoz
The United States solved its problems differently before 2020, said Dr. Kishana Taylor.
For every public health crisis the country encountered before, the situation would slowly ease out of the spotlight as vaccines became available — often at the expense or dismissal of marginalized communities disparately impacted by the disease.
But this year, COVID-19’s enormous death toll and economic destruction demands a harder effort from national and local government leaders to protect Black, Latino and indigenous communities, Taylor said.
“Pandemics expose systemic inequalities,” she said. “The health disparities and interpandemic research, moving forward, are the places we need to watch.”
Taylor spoke as one of three guest speakers in a community webinar held Tuesday about structural racism and the way it has shaped the ongoing pandemic. The virtual session was organized by the Democratizing Knowledge Collective, a Syracuse University group, as part of an ongoing talk series about justice for communities of color throughout different crises.
Despite the promise of a vaccine and hopes for previous normalcy, it’s important to recognize how pre-existing structural and systemic racism facilitated higher COVID-19 death and illness rates in the country’s minority populations, said Paula Johnson, an SU law professor and collective member.
Aside from the pandemic, racist systems that exacerbate COVID-19’s spread are also “the same reason that these communities literally cannot breathe,” Johnson said.
COVID-19’s stranglehold on public life has slowly become more visible in American cities as the U.S. enters its ninth month of pandemic response, said Carrie Mae Weems, an image and text artist-in-residence at SU.
Weems recently organized an extensive public art campaign to both inform diverse populations about the novel coronavirus and honor community members who are essential workers.
Born from Weems’ initial moments of emotionally processing COVID-19 death and sudden change in March, Weems’ “RESIST COVID/TAKE 6” project joined a team of artists in designing public service messaging for all kinds of surfaces, she said.
Different installations from the project include church fans, door hangers, canvas, paper and reusable bags and other advertising on bus shelters, murals, billboards and newspapers.
Now living near Syracuse’s South Side, Weems is glad to see “TAKE 6” lawn signs scattered throughout her neighborhood, but wishes there were other COVID-19 informational resources also available to residents.
“There is no signage, no billboard, no image, no beauty, no questions, nothing about COVID,” Weems said. “Nothing with the exception of this material which is heartbreaking, frankly. That means to me it’s more important and it has also shown me how committed the community is in understanding the importance of keeping the sign in place.”
Weems brought “TAKE 6” to 10 different U.S. cities in total. As part of the project’s presence in New York City, the Brooklyn Museum’s red and black painted steps now read “KNOW THIS … / COVID 19 IS NOT A HOAX BUT DEADLY REAL,” with alternating Spanish phrases and an accompanying painted litany of essential worker titles for viewers to thank.
Accessibility in both the visuals and language of each piece is important to Weems, who is overall glad to have been able to help other communities provide important information to the people who most need it, she said.
Beyond remembrance, respecting COVID-19 vulnerable populations with government action is also important, said Crispín Hernández, a Workers’ Center of CNY member.
Agriculture workers are at an especially high risk for contracting COVID-19 because of the physical, in-person nature of their work, Hernández said. Many farm workers are immigrants who do not have health insurance, he noted, yet another complicating factor in the year’s crisis.
Workers’ Center of CNY has spent the past few months organizing to spread accurate, language-accessible information about COVID-19 and get legal protections for agriculture workers. Their work in the #FundExcludedWorkers campaign and collaboration with congress and senate representatives has saved a lot of lives, Hernández said.
Vaccinating everyone is an important first step toward saving even more, Taylor added.
New vaccines could be distributed as soon as the spring or summer of 2021, thanks to an unprecedentedly quick, yet safe research process, she said. While vaccine development typically takes up to 10 years, scientists were able to develop COVID-19 vaccines in less than a year because of previous, related research that left few gaps in the discovery process, she said.
There is still a lingering lack of trust between many Black communities and the government and medical industry, a problem rooted in centuries of harm, a lack of Black people involved in infectious disease research and the unethical 1932 Tuskegee syphilis study, Taylor said.
“The issue with the Tuskegee experiment was that they weren’t treating people,” she said, noting that the current COVID-19 response and vaccination delays somewhat paralleled the federal government’s passive inaction in Tuskegee. “Us taking power and actions on ourselves and getting vaccinated in order to prevent the continual spread of this disease is actually the antithesis of (the Tuskegee) experiment.”
Marginalized communities have successfully advocated to government and scientific agencies for change before, Johnson said, pointing to the HIV/AIDS epidemic which disparately affected people of color and the LGBT community at unique intersections.
Organizers on the ground put their lives on the line and used platforms of art and language to tell their story then, Johnson said.
“After COVID there will be something else,” Johnson said. “If we can learn something about this pandemic and all of the devastation, all of the missteps, all of the misinformation and all of the activism that was necessary, then I think we have to put that together so we aren’t caught flat-footed once again when something like this revisits our community.”