Initial Publication Date: June 17, 2020

(In)equity in the Time of COVID-19

Edited by Olivia Lopez, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected communities across the globe, giving rise to widespread feelings of fear and uncertainty. As day-to-day life continues to transform before our eyes, we are faced with new challenges related to equitable treatment in society. Understanding the burdens that have been disproportionately placed on certain identity groups as a result of the pandemic is vital to creating and maintaining safe and inclusive educational and working spaces in the classroom, laboratory and in the field.

Responsible and inclusive decision-making

  • What are the decision processes regarding workspaces and/or work schedules and who is involved in making these decisions?
  • Where and when will I, my students, staff, and employees feel most safe?
  • How do we continue to safeguard against power dynamics, peer-pressure, and economic and professional vulnerabilities in decisions about accessing the workplace?
  • How do we take into account people's health, family conditions, caregiving responsibilities, etc., when making decisions about who will or will not return to regular work schedules and spaces?
  • How do we support our students and staff from groups disproportionately affected by economic hardships, racism and discrimination, and health disparities during and after the pandemic?

Heightened instances of xenophobia, racism, and profiling

As numbers of COVID-19 cases have increased, so have reports of racist and discriminatory behavior toward several identity groups. After statements were released confirming that the first case of COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China, members of the Asian and Asian-American communities in particular have reported being targets of hate speech and acts of discrimination in numerous countries. In the U.S, a leader in the number of confirmed cases, more than 1000 instances of physical and verbal assault against Asian Americans were reported between the end of March and mid-April alone. Many recognize these acts as a surfacing of pre-existing, deep-seated Anti-Asian racism in the U.S.

The African American or Black community has also voiced concerns about being targeted in new ways with the rise of the pandemic. As wearing face masks in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus has become the new norm in many places, Black people are forced to consider how wearing a mask may also endanger their lives. Citing global anti-Blackness and common stereotypes, Black persons are forced to consider whether they may be perceived as a threat by those around them, especially while wearing a mask. As individuals of all identities are forced to cope with the reality of living through a pandemic, members of certain targeted communities face these additional societal challenges that pose a threat to their safety and wellbeing.

[Pandemics] bring with them an almost shadow pandemic of psychological and societal injuries as well.

- Monica Scoch-Spana, quoted in B. Venkat Mani, Fighting the Shadow Pandemic

COVID-19 highlights pre-existing inequities in society

As local and national leaders scrambled to limit the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., it quickly became evident that already-marginalized communities would be the most affected. These conditions stem from systemic, institutional, and societal inequities that have weighed heavily on many identity groups for generations:

  • People of color, including immigrant and undocumented workers, are overrepresented in low-wage jobs that have been considered "essential" during the pandemic, increasing their likelihood of exposure.
  • Black women are most likely to be denied life-saving care when visiting hospitals
  • Black and brown individuals are overrepresented in the country's prison. population. Inmates face a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.
  • Black people are disproportionately affected by existing health conditions, such as asthma and high blood pressure.
  • Native communities in many tribal lands experience great health disparities and reduced access to sanitation infrastructure and health care.

Read more about how COVID-19 perpetuates pre-existing inequities:

New challenges as campuses transition to virtual learning

As schools and universities closed campuses and ceased in-person activity, many were left without access to important resources:

  • Low-income and houseless students report difficulty accessing technology needed for online learning
  • Students who identify as LGBTQ+ rely on resources provided by college campuses if they come from unsupportive homes
  • International students face uncertainty about being able to travel back home or return to the U.S.
  • Field-based research programs face interruptions, losses of long-term data
  • Women faculty in STEM have expressed concerns about decreased research productivity as they are more likely to balance work and caregiving

Read more about challenges specific to virtual learning and workspaces.

The pandemic will negatively impact the careers of women in STEM, particularly those of color, and failure to respond could jeopardize years of progress toward faculty equity.

- Stephanie A. Goodwin and Beth Mitchneck,STEM Equity and Inclusion (Un)Interrupted


Field Safety in the Time of COVID-19

Field work during the COVID-19 pandemic brings additional risks to individual and collective safety. Take time to assess present conditions and brainstorm ways to build adaptability into field work and safety plans:

We're really hoping that this passes, as I'm sure the rest of the world is, so we can get back out there. But this is a fast-moving crisis, and we need to take care of people first.

- Emily Darling, quoted inThe Long-Term Effects of Covid-19 on Field Scienceby Claudia Geib