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Sociology and the Pandemic

by Brad Christerson

This pandemic has been disruptive and stressful for all of us. But when I think about my own situation, it has been a relatively mild storm — I (thankfully) still have a job, I can work from home safely, and even though we thought my wife may have had the virus (she had a bad cough in her lungs), she was able to get access to our family doctor quickly and is feeling fine. But for others, the pandemic has hit them like a hurricane. I spoke to one of my students this week whose father just lost his job and her mother was told she will probably be laid off. This student has increased her hours as a fast-food worker to try to help the family pay the bills — she is wondering if she will get the virus at work and infect her family.

As sociologists, we analyze how inequalities in society affect people in life and death. In this pandemic, poor and working class folks as well as communities of color are more likely to experience Covid-19 as a life-threatening hurricane than a mild storm. While I work safely at home, working class folks are risking infection by harvesting my food, stocking the shelves and ringing up my purchases at the grocery store. An emergency doctor in Brooklyn, New York, stated, “I have seen in my exam rooms mostly black and brown patients who are essential workers and service workers who cannot afford to stay home.” Many of those risking infection to keep their jobs also have no health insurance, making them less likely to get treatment.

Twenty-two million people have now lost their jobs due to Covid-19. And for the 40% of all full-time working Americans making less than $30,000 per year, the loss of even one month’s pay may mean the threat of eviction or going hungry. Those who are already houseless and living on the streets, and those in prison or immigration detention are particularly at risk of infection because they lack the ability to socially distance.

African American communities have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. In Chicago, Milwaukee and the state of Louisiana, African Americans account for over 70% of all Covid-19 deaths, even though they make up less than a third of the population in those areas. On the surface, the reason for this higher death rate is higher rates of underlying health problems among African Americans. But if we look deeper, the reason for these higher rates of health problems are, among others, limited access to health care and healthy food, greater exposure to toxic waste, and discriminatory treatment in the health care system. Asian Americans have also been hit hard by the pandemic as they have experienced a wave of racial hostility and a spike in hate crimes making it more stressful and dangerous for them to go out in public. There have been 1,135 documented hate crimes against Asian Americans since March 19.

We have just celebrated Jesus’ resurrection, which reminds us that God is in the business of transforming death into hope and new beginnings. I have hope that God will somehow transform this horrific wave of death into new beginnings for our society and world. Is it possible that this pandemic will open more eyes to the life-destroying effects of the extreme inequalities in our society? Is it possible that this pandemic will help us understand that our own well-being is tied to the well-being of everyone — including those in different racial, national or socio-economic groups? Is it possible that the followers of Jesus could take the lead in caring for and advocating for those most affected by these deadly social inequalities, which at certain times in history his followers have done? With God all things are possible.