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A Deep Dive into the Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19

Cassandra Blackburn

Editor’s Note: A few months ago, we hosted an internal panel at Relativity to discuss the disparate ways different communities are facing the COVID-19 crisis. Now, with the devastating impacts of systemic racism fueling protests around the world, it’s more important than ever to welcome these open, honest discussions. Inclusion, diversity, and belonging are an integral part of our culture. You can expect to see more topics like this on the blog in the months to come.

We are all dealing with a host of uncertainty thanks to the COVID-19 crisis.

In moments of crisis, being there for each other is paramount. Listening to understand is essential when the world feels unwell, and it’s clear this pandemic is affecting every single person.

But, looking closely at the impact of COVID-19 specifically, not everyone is experiencing the pandemic in the same way. These varying experiences may pull into question communities’ sense of belonging.

At Relativity, fostering a sense of belonging is part of our company’s DNA—and that’s especially important during times of crisis. As head of inclusion, diversity, and belonging here at Relativity, I have held ongoing conversations with our company community resource groups (CRGs) to get a feel for how the COVID-19 crisis is impacting our teams—and it quickly became apparent that we needed to have a meaningful discussion about it.

We strive to build a culture where every employee can share her experience. With that in mind, in April, we hosted a panel with experts versed in inclusion, diversity, and belonging on the reality of COVID-19 and how we can understand our own biases to make a positive change. 

The conversation was hosted in partnership with Black at Relativity (BRel), Faces of Relativity (F.O.R), and RelAsians, with panelists from The Nova Collective.

The Repercussions of the Dominant Narratives

COVID-19 has been particularly devastating for communities of color. Recent CDC figures find African Americans account for 29.3 percent of all COVID-19 cases. This cohort comprises 13.4 percent of the total US population. Of total cases, Latinx populations account for 24.5 percent of cases. However, Latinx communities make up just 18.3 percent of the population.

These numbers are shocking. Sadly, among many populations, dominant narratives persist that push the blame onto those who are suffering. Dominant narratives are stories about our perceived reality that guide our lives. They often manifest in stereotypes and assumptions about other groups.

During the conversation, Noor Ali, a social justice educator and member of The Nova Collective, noted biases are often not formed due to malicious intent, but still have the same impact and negative consequences for marginalized groups. Often, humans are unaware we have these biases. Socialization has engrained these assumptions into us. As a result, we look for examples that reinforce our biases, and ignore instances that challenge them.

“People will see images of communities of color in social gatherings and think that they are harming themselves,” she said in regard to social distancing perceptions. “But, if they see picture of the more dominant identity in a large gathering, it doesn’t resonate.”

Another dominant narrative in the media is that this is a “Chinese virus” because of its geographic origins. This dominant narrative plays into the historical discrimination that people of Asian descent have experienced for decades, according to Lesley-Ann Brown Henderson, PhD, acting chief of staff and executive director of campus inclusion and community at Northwestern University.

“They may often get asked, ‘Where are you really from though?’” she said. “It is this idea of othering—you can’t really be American. This leads to social, economic, and political repercussions for these communities.”

We may often hear of discrimination second-hand on social media or in the news. However, this is directly happening, every day, to many individuals throughout our community. Cindy Xie, technical writer at Relativity and co-chair of RelAsians, shared the reality she faced when doing something as mundane as heading to the grocery store.

“People will scream racial slurs or yell ‘corona’ when I’m on my bike with a mask,” she said. “I’ve also seen subtle behaviors, like people crossing the street when I’m walking my dog.”

Taking Action through Solidarity

In February 2020, Dr. Tedros Adanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, discussed the sad reality that fear is fueling many people’s actions. He implored the world to take a step back and not give into the fear.

“We must be guided by solidarity, not stigma. ... The greatest enemy we face is not the virus itself; it’s the stigma that turns us against each other. We must stop the stigma and hate,” he said.

The inaccuracies embedded in these narratives are damaging to marginalized communities. We, as a society, must face these narratives head on as opposed to going along with the status quo.

Waking up to what is happening and identifying our biases are crucial first steps toward making a difference. Still, it may be hard to know how to enact positive change, and where to start.

Being an ally can take many forms. No matter what supportive path you end up following, a good starting ground is getting educated. Learn about the histories of marginalized groups. Doing this in conjunction with being aware of your biases will drive personal growth. 

To be more mindful about inclusiveness and belonging at work, getting involved in CRGs and similar groups in your organization can provide a lens into what your teammates are dealing with. These groups offer communities and allies an opportunity to connect in a way that is impactful and personal.

“Some of us may not have diversity in our communities or networks,” said Mario Lucero, associate director, UIC Latino Cultural Center. “CRGs are a great way to have a dialogue. You can find common ground and learn that we have so much more in common than we have differences.”

I have been so inspired with how our community is banding together. I do not mean to minimize the stress the current pandemic has presented, but in the midst of these challenges, there are moments of extreme positivity. Those are the moments that we should celebrate—after all, they’re the ones that will make all the difference.

Learn More about Inclusion, Diversity, and Belonging at Relativity

Cassandra Blackburn was the head of inclusion, diversity, and belonging at Relativity