George Floyd died after a police officer pressed his knee on his neck until he stopped breathing, and riots have now erupted in cities across our nation. We can blame those police officers who participated in Floyd’s murder, and we can blame those looters who have moved well beyond peaceful demonstrations. But real solutions to these problems require that we probe deeper as we try to understand why our fragile sense of community has been shattered.
We are hearing a cry for help due to widespread economic and racial inequalities. The riots and disproportionate COVID-19 suffering and death of African Americans and Latinos are intertwined. We have failed to deal with structural deficiencies that contribute to vulnerabilities, such as the quiet and relentless poisoning effects of poverty, fear of poverty and racism.
And yet, it is now more evident that we are all at risk from the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide riots as long as the most at-risk and vulnerable among us lack money, food, health care and shelter.
We know that high levels of economic inequality are as toxic as the chemicals from Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” Stripped and ravaged by environmental and economic insults, it should not be surprising that so many under-resourced poor people have succumbed to COVID-19. It should not be surprising that so many are angry at these health disparities and mistreatment by our society.
Both the riots that erupted over the weekend as well as the racial disparity in the COVID-19 pandemic are profound wake-up calls for our society to address many of the structural barriers that impede a host of economic and health outcomes.
Social distancing, wearing masks, COVID-19 testing and contact tracing are all critical public health strategies that will ultimately bring the coronavirus crisis under control. However, this pandemic provides our nation with an opportunity to rethink our social contract with each other, and assess our underlying sense of community and concern for our neighbors.
At the deepest and most profound level, real structural change is needed, and we can see hints of how this might occur by the awe-inspiring work of hundreds of nonprofits and community-based organizations throughout our nation that are dealing with these types of structural deficiencies among those who are most vulnerable.
The insight from the COVID-19 crisis and the current riots is that we are all interconnected and thus, our health depends on each other. But the full test of our commitment to a sense of community and fairness depends on our ability to provide adequate health care and basic rights to our most vulnerable citizens. By doing that, we will enrich our society and provide a firmer basis of safety for all.
Leonard A. Jason is a community psychologist and director of the Center for Community Research at DePaul University. Kyle Hucke is a developmental psychologist, former project director at the Center for Community Research at DePaul University, and worked in Louisiana doing community interventions and public health prior to moving to Chicago. This piece was written for the Chicago Tribune.
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