AS WE COLLECTIVELY begin to accept that the coronavirus will be around possibly forever, many cities and states in the United States are looking ahead to removing restrictions, such as indoor masking and proof of vaccination that were in place at the start of the pandemic.
However, while our tolerance level for risk may have increased as we enter the third year of the pandemic, the virus continues to cause irreparable consequences to people and communities across the U.S., with communities of color and less economically advantaged people more likely to suffer. Loosening standards is premature and we should not abandon the public health measures that were put in place in a rush to “return to normal,” as these could further widen the racial and economic disparities in health.
The virus is still a prevalent part of our existence. There were, on average 85,542 new cases per day on Feb. 21, 2022, compared to 66,382 for the same period last year, according to the New York Times.
The number of deaths is around the same, at 1,958 in 2022, compared to 1,928 for this same period in 2021, suggesting that vaccines and medical advances have led to improved survival. However, it is also worth noting that among those who survive, the consequences cannot be underestimated. A recent study published in the journal Nature revealed that there is a significant elevated risk of cardiovascular diseases following even mild infection with COVID-19, even among those patients without the common risk factors such as older age and chronic diseases. Currently, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), heart disease and stroke cost upwards of $360 billion annually in terms of health system costs and productivity losses. Further, the virus continues to mutate, and with several variants now in circulation and more expected. As we continue to learn more about the short- and long-term consequences of this disease, we must exercise caution with the primary goal of reducing the risk of infection.
Pandemic disparities persist
As an epidemiologist with 15 years of experience in the field, and currently on the faculty at San Jose State university, I have received funding to examine the effects of the coronavirus on marginalized populations, and published in peer-reviewed journals. As such, I am keenly aware of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on marginalized populations, including communities of color and those economically disadvantaged. Although the picture is changing from earlier on in the pandemic, where people of color were 2-3 times more likely to die from the virus compared to whites, the disparities still persist, with the death rates still consistently higher among African Americans, Native Americans, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, according to data from Emory University.
Nevertheless, there is continued pressure among business owners and other executives in the push to return to normal, as employees are being pushed to return to the workplace. To be sure, there are social and economic benefits of returning to “normal.” Synergies can be gained and workplace communities strengthened from random conversations in the hallway, which would not otherwise be experienced while working from home.
However, people of color are less enthusiastic about returning to the workplace compared to whites, and this cannot be overlooked. For example, it was reported in a Future Forum study released last year, that white people were 7 times as likely to want to return to the office full time as Black people. In addition, due to the overwhelming rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, I have heard anecdotal evidence about concerns Asian Americans have about traveling to work using public transportation due to the fear of being attacked. This is particularly problematic in larger cities where public transportation to work is the only practical means of traveling. Everyday experiences of discrimination have been shown to lead to increased risk of anxiety and depression, in addition to other chronic diseases like heart disease.
As we continue to emerge from this deadly virus, we must consider the following to create an equitable society for all:
CONTINUE the public health measures that have already been implemented. It is important to continue wearing masks, practicing physical distancing, and other public health measures such as staying home when sick and regular handwashing.
UPHOLD workplace safety legislation aimed at protecting the health of service workers, who are at increased risk for COVID-19, such as requiring masks in public places such as grocery stores and restaurants. Similar measures against public smoking have helped reduce the exposure to secondhand smoke among hospitality workers.
CREATE inclusive and flexible work arrangements where practical, and those that recognize differential experiences among certain marginalized groups, that allow all employees to remain productive while preserving their mental and physical health. Additional benefits include reduced stress from commuting, and reduced risk of traffic accidents, which have risen alarmingly since the start of the pandemic.
As a generation, we have been forever changed by the events of the past two years. We must take the lessons we have learnt about the systemic issues that further put marginalized groups at risk for adverse health outcomes to develop solutions that will improve the quality of life for all. Going back “to normal” will set us back for decades.
About the author
Marcelle Dougan is an assistant professor of Public Health at San Jose State University, and a Public Voices Fellow with the The OpEd Project.