The SJRC has a robust network of local and international public health experts, scholars, and practitioners leading the way with collecting resources for teaching about COVID-19, writing open response letters, and calls to action, and organizing and participating in online events.
Interviews and writings conducted by SJRC interns and students of Director Jenny Reardon’s undergraduate independent study seminar SOCY 194: Living and Learning in a Pandemic: The Sociology of COVID-19, will be archived and linked below as they become available.
Find more information on the COVID-19 Pandemicene’s project page.
Here, four students in the internship, each focusing on a different issue and angle concerning COVID-19, share their series of blog posts. Initial posts were posted on May 13, 2020, with further posts in the series to come.
1) Bioethics and Equity-Based Frameworks Amidst a Pandemic
By: Maryam Nazir
The ethical frameworks for dealing with a national pandemic hinge on both the adequate care of patients as well as fair and accessible treatment for all. Though these standards are indeed agreed upon by both health care workers and government leaders alike, where we see discordance is perhaps the implementation of these standards in a fundamentally unethical society.
A country built upon the tenets of capitalism can never truly carry out policies that go against the very nature of its own economic system. Built upon inequities and respective profits, the system serves to only benefit its own continuance. When faced with tragedies outside the scope of Wall Street, how can we have discussions about its ethics when those making policy decisions are concerned with and only with the recuperation of the economy rather than the people within it?
It is necessary when discussing ethical frameworks of a pandemic to recognize the ways in which our policies, economic systems, and institutions simply work in the favor of those in the 1%, and by definition, simply cannot do more than what they were built to accomplish. Class, race, religion, and gender all hold significant roles in determining exactly how you will be treated by this system, in general, and especially in a pandemic.
Already we have significant data revealing the deaths by COVID-19 as disproportionately affecting Black and Brown people across the country. As reported by ProPublica, “[in] Milwaukee County, Wis…. 81 percent of the deaths were black people. Black people make up only 26 percent of that county” (Social Distancing is a Privilege, Blow). The inequities faced by marginalized communities, whether by race, gender, or socio-economic status, bleed into every facet and system of this country. Regardless of policies enacted, mutual aid funds created, or op-ed pieces written, these inequities are inescapable.
It is simply counterintuitive to truly hope for a means in which this country can reform enough to fill in the gaps of these gaping inequities. Any discussion regarding ethical frameworks for pandemics, or any natural disasters/crises, must be contingent upon the fact that we can never create a response comprehensive enough to reconcile these inequalities.
Once we are able to start conversations that include these unequal implications regarding responses, can we truly and realistically develop ethical frameworks. Inequity is woven within our systems, and it is essential that we recognize this, and allow it to guide future responses to crises such as this.
The first step in potential reconciliation starts and ends with the very communities that are targeted by the systems that we have put in place. In order to merge this gap, we must be putting all of our efforts and resources into the communities most vulnerable. The conversations must start with how we can extend access to those at the very bottom before allocating to those at the top. We must ask ourselves, who has a privilege of social distancing, getting tested, and receiving treatment, and shift our response plans to directly target those who do not have these privileges.
The myth that this virus affects all must be dismantled, and our responses must reflect this fact. If not, we will have to live with the fact that this country has and continues to take advantage of the unequal valuation of human life.
2) Privacy During a Pandemic: Digital Contact Tracing and Technosolutionism
By: Kathia Damian
Early last month Google and Apple announced a joint effort to use digital contact tracing to aid in slowing the spread of COVID-19. They’ve recently announced a mock-up of what the digital contact tracing software would look like and are optimistic about being able to roll out this new technology later this month. According to the CDC, Contact tracing is meant to support a patient with confirmed or suspected illness through tracing the people who they’ve had contact with. The people who have been in contact with the patient are alerted, advised to maintain social distance, and track their symptoms for 14 days after last contact with the patient.
So far, the CDC has proposed two types of tracking using digital devices. The first is Case Management, which will capture data on cases and contacts. The goal is to use contact information to notify and follow-up with an individual who may have been exposed. Secondly, they’re proposing Proximity Tracking which would use Bluetooth or GPS to track an individual’s exposure to cases. It would require community wide adoption for proximity tracking to work effectively.
Yet many are weary of digital contact tracing as part of a“technosolutionsim” which places a tremendous amount of faith in technological solutions without considering repercussions on the most marginalized. “Efficient” has become a dog whistle word which allows Silicon Valley to operate without traditional checks. There are several obstacles facing the implementation of digital contact tracing.The most pressing is the effectiveness of contact tracing given the lack of testing available. The CDC has outlined contact tracing as a multi-pronged approach, and without widespread testing digital contact tracing is a meandering in the direction of a solution instead of a coordinated approach toward controlling the spread of COVID-19. Furthermore, there’s the issue of false positives. The proposed apps will be using Bluetooth, and because cell phones can detect Bluetooth signals through walls, people may be alerted despite not having been exposed. Lastly, given recent debates staking market vs lives, will contact tracing be used to provide a false sense of security providing justification to open up the economy before it is safe to do so?
In an upcoming blog post, we will take a deeper look at the app proposed by Apple and Google to understand the merits and pitfalls of adopting digital contact tracing into our daily lives. We will further explore the “why” in the creation of this app. Is digital contact tracing an effective solution, or is it Silicon Valley guilt appeasement? More information on understanding the logistics of this app, as well as the importance of balancing public safety and privacy during a pandemic will be available in forthcoming blog posts.
3) Pharmaceuticals, a Vaccine for COVID-19, and Questions of Equitable Access
By: Teresa (Tee) Wicks
The global pandemic of COVID-19 is something that has never before been seen in recent history. CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, is a company established by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that finances independent research in developing vaccines for emerging diseases and centralizes on pandemic preparedness in low and middle-income countries (LMIC). In wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, CEPI has worked rapidly to raise over $924 million dollars dedicated to the development of a vaccine for the virus. CEPI has its own equitable access policy which states to ensure that LMIC’s will have equal accessibility to vaccinations and treatments created by the company just as developed countries do. Many manufacturers do not see CEPI’s equitable access policy as reliable in competitive business models without guaranteed financial gain or intellectual property rights. In December 2018, however, CEPI revised its philanthropic policy most likely in response to pharmaceutical industries’ unwillingness to collaborate on a partnership. The revised equitable access policy no longer guarantees the promise of affordable vaccine prices and takes zero accountability to investors. Because the profit returns are not large enough to warrant any investment, pharmaceutical companies are not as open or willing to invest in drug manufacturing in developing countries.
Pharmaceutical industries do not endorse rare diseases, or orphan diseases, that affect less than 200,000 people by the US medical standards. Expanding on this definition, the title of orphan diseases is also named for common diseases in developing countries, such as tuberculosis (TB), HIV/AIDS, or malaria, which large pharmaceutical companies neglect to treat and research due to their lack of pervasiveness in developed countries. According to WHO, “tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and malaria together account for nearly 18 percent of the disease burden in the poorest countries”, most of which are in Africa, South East Asia, and the Western Pacific. The disheartening fact of the matter is that all of these diseases are preventable and can be combated with existing medicines from developed countries and pharmaceutical industries, especially when granted orphan drug status to treatments and candidate vaccinations.
The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, has shown that in disaster situations, normal protocols are not being followed. In March 2020, for example, Gilead requested and was subsequently granted orphan drug status by the FDA for Remdesivir, a potential treatment for COVID-19. The Orphan Drug Act of 1983 was signed in order to combat and fund research and development for rare diseases observed by the FDA, such as Lou Gehrig’s Disease or Tourette’s Syndrome. This title would ultimately limit competing manufacturers from developing generic versions of the drug, would guarantee tax credits for development, and ultimately grant Gilead the power to name their own price. COVID-19, however, is in no such way an orphan disease seeing that it has been confirmed to have affected over one million people in the US and nearly four million people globally. After a public uproar, Gilead has since then revoked Remdesivir’s status as an orphan drug. During this emergency basis, it is clear that normal protocols are not being followed. Major pharmaceutical manufacturers may still be profit-hungry, but perhaps COVID-19 will change the status-quo direction of compulsory license options.
COVID-19 may prove whether or not CEPI will follow through with its promises of equal accessibility to deliver a non-patent vaccination, challenging the usual business approaches of Big Pharma. Medical innovation is crucial for the development of a vaccine to COVID-19, however, global accessibility to ensure aid is given to every person in need is even more critical to slow the rapid circulation of the virus that has reached every corner of the globe.
4) Re-Worlding in the time of COVID with Mesiah and Little Wind
By: Isa Ansari
At this point, it is clear that COVID-19 is changing our world forever. Headlines from almost every major media outlet tell us how the future of travel, education, fine dining, work spaces and more will look entirely different. Images of glass dining pods and social distance playground games overwhelm our imaginaries of how things could soon be. However, at the edge of this precipice, we must be careful of what kind of world we collectively envision and work towards. How can we avoid reproducing and reinscribing the same harmful systems and relations that rendered our world particularly vulnerable to a pandemic of this nature, and to the disproportionate effects it is having? As Naomi Klein has shown us, “in times of crisis, seemingly impossible ideas become possible” (Klein, Democracy Now, March 19 2020).
How can we go beyond focusing on glass dining pods and social distancing methods for cubicles, towards more capacious conversations about the nature of our global situation and how we got here? Is it possible to imagine and fight for a world where relations of care are central, and all lives are equally valued? Can this world exist in the context of the persistent colonial power relations, racialized hierarchies, and massive wealth inequality that characterize our current situation? Thinking about the so-called United States specifically, my work centers the importance of decolonization, as action not metaphor, as it is grounded in mutual aid organizing and long term visions of BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/ People of Color) organizers (Tuck & Yang, 2012). I believe that an equitable, liveable world is not possible within the context of a settler colonial nation state where racist vigilantes are able to murder black men for running, and Mashpee Wampanoag reservation land is able to be revoked in the midst of a pandemic. We must decolonize. Because of this, I am choosing to center the work of individuals who are doing community centered, frontline organizing with a goal of “healing the land and healing ourselves” (Mesiah, personal communication, May 4 2020)
This week, I am focusing on the work of Mesiah, 24, and Little Wind, 23, two indigenous youths who are engaged in a vital project of providing COVID-19 crisis relief to hundreds of families on Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, all the while keeping their eyes strongly fixed on the horizon. As Mesiah noted in our conversation, COVID-19 felt like a door opening into a space where they could “implement some of their greatest ideas” to liberate their community from structures that were never built to support them (Mesiah, personal communication May 3 2020). Their work is connected to the broader legacy of mutual aid in BIPOC lifeways prior to capitalism and colonialism, and in struggles for life and liberation under the eventual racialized, colonial, capitalist world order. As Regan De Loggans writes in a zine titled “Let’s Talk Mutual Aid” this legacy is one of “indigenous lifeways and sovereignty, Black thrivance and power” (De Loggans, 2020). Mutual aid is a long term commitment to the safety and viability of the community beyond the crisis of COVID-19 and into the crisis of capitalism in the everyday.
Born and raised between the Bay Area and New York, Mesiah identifies as afro-indigenous and two-spirit. Little Wind is Northern Arapaho and was born and raised by their mother and grandmothers on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. After meeting at Standing Rock in 2016, they began organizing together and are now partners, leading this essential work while deeply rooted in love. The following is based on a lengthy conversation I had with them over zoom earlier this month, where we talked about their work right now and how it will extend into the visions of future sovereignty and sustainability they have for themselves and their community.
Little Wind and Mesiah began organizing in early March when they realized that many of the people on the reservation would not have the ability to shelter in place if asked to do so because of high levels of scarcity. In Little Wind’s words, they wanted to “show up big” for the grandmothers and grandbabies who were in imminent need (Little Wind, personal communication, May 3 2020). Aware that the situation at Wind River was unique, and that there was no information specifically curated for their community to understand their predicament, they took matters into their own hands and began developing a survey to assess the situation.
Beginning around March 22nd, they began distributing a survey which included questions about pre-existing health conditions, how much food and potable water was already in the home, what was needed and in what quantity, etc. The data they collected showed that almost 70% percent of households who filled out the survey have someone with a pre-existing health condition that renders them more vulnerable to contracting the virus. Little Wind emphasized that “these diseases were introduced to us,: and that their great great grandparents had not known conditions like kidney disease or cancer to such a degree (Little Wind, personal communication, May 3 2020). Their survey also included forward facing questions such as whether they have access to running water and land to plant food, or whether they would use seeds if provided. Their survey was intentionally modeled this way to collect data that had the longer term in mind. They immediately received a flood of responses and in the following weeks provided essential resources to 300 households, doing all of the shopping, sanitizing, sorting, and delivering. They fed around 2,600 people in total with stores to last a month.
Their plans to continue their work beyond this imminent crisis and towards tackling “the challenges that keep our people dependent on the system” include developing educational centers for youths on Wind River Reservation to learn about the extraction that is going on on their land, the conditions that have rendered them vulnerable to poverty and disease, and what they might be able to do about it. These spaces are not just to foster radical education, but also sustainable forms of support. They want to encourage a more radical vision of solidarity, one that does not assume that indigneous communities can not and do not organize for themselves, but that asks academics and organizers to orient their work toward justice as articulated by indigenous communities themselves, not the agenda of the academy or the left wing. They want to open a water center, and continue to fight against extraction that poisons the soil, so that they might be able to provide seeds to those wishing to grow food, and be free to care for the land and each other again. Linked below is their fundraiser, where I encourage anyone who can to donate and contribute to their efforts, both right now and in the long term.
De Loggans, Regan. “Let’s Talk Mutual Aid” Online Zine. Accessed May 2020. https://dochub.com/rloggans/jo3xELpR3ZO8yz8wJBa7nr/loggans-mutual-aid-zine-pdf?dt=Ls_myQXhz6RrrzS59DVW
Tuck, Eve. Yang, Wayne K. “Decolonization is not a metaphor” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society. vol. 15, no. 1, 1996.