The lesson of social inequality
As in all crises, communities of color and the socio-economically disadvantaged suffer disproportionately during pandemics. Graham Mooney, a historian of medicine at John Hopkins University, observed that pandemics "expose social inequality." From the Black Death, which ravaged Europe in the mid-14th century, to the Spanish flu that killed 50 million people in 1918, social inequality always reveals itself in the demographics most harmed by pandemics.
Today, communities of color are disproportionately affected by this virus and are dying at disproportionately higher rates. In Santa Clara County, the death rate among African Americans is 4% and 36% among Latinos, despite African Americans and Latinos only representing 2% and 25% of the county's population.
There are several reasons for these disparities. First, the risk of exposure is greater because minorities are more likely to be working front-line jobs considered "essential employees."
Second, these demographics often lack access to affordable health care. They are disproportionately hourly wage workers, and reduced hours could lead to foregoing health care over other necessities like food and rent.
Another inequity that has surfaced during this pandemic can be seen in the public fear and demagoguery that have led to ignorant scapegoating of minorities. The country has seen a precipitous increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Government officials must preemptively act to protect these at-risk groups during this crisis.
Another at-risk group is unhoused and socio-economically disadvantaged. Santa Clara County has 9,706 unhoused residents, with Palo Alto home to 313. COVID-19 threatens to decimate this already at-risk population. The county has done well in providing temporary shelter for all confirmed infected individuals, but we have only provided temporary housing for approximately 4% of unhoused residents.
The state is helping by providing millions of dollars in funding to house people. This funding offers cities a unique opportunity to confront one of the great challenges of our time — the homeless epidemic. To begin tackling this epochal crisis, Palo Alto can designate more "safe parking" locations citywide, apply for state grants to lease hotel rooms for unhoused residents to shelter in place, and make public land available while waiving environmental review to quickly build temporary shelters.
Lessons in leadership
History is replete with profiles in courage of leaders who have stood fast in the face of crisis. Today's pandemic will require great leadership to overcome this virus and usher in a more prosperous future.
No leader better embodies the mental fortitude needed in a crisis than President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. The United States was being torn apart by the nation's bloodiest conflict, the Civil War, and Lincoln was in agony. In February, his 11-year-old son died from typhoid fever, political in-fighting was endangering his presidency, and by July the mythic president was despondent after the Union suffered defeat in the Seven Days Battles.
A lesser being would have folded under such pressure, but Lincoln persevered with equanimity, maintaining an optimistic countenance despite grave concerns for the nation's future.
Nancy Koehn, in her 2017 book, "Forged in Crisis," tells of Lincoln's retort to a senator who reprimanded him for sharing a comedic story shortly after the Seven Days' Battles.
"Senator," Lincoln said, "do you think that this situation weighs more heavily upon you than it does upon me? If the cause goes against us, not only will the country be lost, but I shall be disgraced to all time.
"But what would happen if I appeared upon the streets of Washington today with such a countenance as yours? The news would spread throughout the country that the president's very demeanor is an admission that defeat is inevitable."
The president's optimism and resilience would prove invaluable in the coming months and years.
Lincoln didn't campaign on an anti-slavery platform, but 1862 changed everything. Lincoln revealed the Emancipation Proclamation, a promise to end slavery born out of desperation, and it provided Lincoln the opportunity to turn tragedy into hope for millions of Americans.
Lincoln's story of tragedy and overcoming provides a lesson for today's leaders: equanimity, resilience, optimism and the ability to turn catastrophe into opportunity.
A lesson for us all
Few moments in history have brought humanity together better than this crisis, and there is some strange beauty in knowing we're all fighting these struggles together as a global collective. As a teacher and student of history, I can tell you this: The world has seen countless pandemics, wars, natural disasters and other crises, but we always survived and progressed. So, too, will we overcome this virus.
As Lincoln used a nation divided to secure freedom for millions of Americans, so, too, can we use this crisis to permanently address some of society's most pressing needs. Let's finally acknowledge that social determinants of race and ethnicity play critical roles in equity and design our housing, health care and other policies to reflect that reality. Let's recognize the moral and practical implications of poverty and resolve to evolve these temporary solutions into permanent ones.
Finally, let's continue this shared sense of humanity that has made us nicer to one another — ordinary people doing extraordinary things like helping deliver groceries to elderly neighbors, offering RVs to health care professionals and volunteering to be Block Preparedness Coordinators. We don't need another Lincoln; we all have the capability of being leaders. Today is our time to step up.
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