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Cooke: COVID-19 is a crisis that exposed injustices

Smoke from the Calwood fire
Smoke from the CalWood fire rises to the southeast of Estes Park, Colorado, near Jamestown Oct. 17. (Matt Tackett | The Collegian)

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

The pandemic infiltrated every aspect of our daily lives a year ago, but the year between then and now has been defined by more than just COVID-19. Civil unrest after George Floyd’s death, extreme weather events caused by climate change and political turmoil surrounding the 2020 election have all happened within the context of the ongoing public health crisis.

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According to Katherine E. Browne, a professor of anthropology at Colorado State University, the pandemic has highlighted areas of chronic and generational neglect, and now these injustices are impossible to ignore or explain away.

Browne’s international research focuses on communities affected by disasters and how they adapt and maintain resiliency throughout their recovery. She is the co-founder and co-director of the Culture and Disaster Action Network, which “integrate(s) cultural comprehension into the work of disaster risk reduction and disaster recovery.”

Browne wrote in an email to The Collegian, “To disaster anthropologists, collective crises are known as ‘crises révélatrice,’” or crises that reveal. That is an appropriate way to describe the impact that COVID-19 has made on several communities.

Browne wrote that disasters of all kinds, whether they happen gradually like the pandemic or immediately like hurricanes or wildfires, reveal histories of social injustice. These injustices often go unnoticed in our everyday lives, but the “discomfort of having our everyday reality drastically altered can lead us to wonder why and ask questions.”

“For perhaps the first time in our nation’s history, no one aware and tuned in can ignore the brutal fact that Black, Indigenous and other communities of color have experienced far higher rates of virus infection and death compared to their numbers in the population,” Browne wrote.

In normal times, the stories we Americans often tell ourselves help separate us and absolve us from the social inequities around us” –Katherine Browne, professor of anthropology

These disproportionate impacts have systemic roots. The terrible scale of COVID-19 in Native American communities in New Mexico, for example, is directly linked to the federal government’s chronic underfunding of their health care services.

The story is similar in African American communities. According to the National Education Association, “Black Americans are more likely than whites to suffer from a number of illnesses and chronic conditions — including diabetes and hypertension,” which can be historically traced to a “long legacy of discrimination, economic deprivation and inadequate access to health care.”

Higher death rates due to the virus in Black communities should highlight institutional problems rather than individual shortcomings.

“In normal times, the stories we Americans often tell ourselves help separate us and absolve us from the social inequities around us,” Browne wrote. 

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Being impoverished is too often understood as the fault of the person who didn’t work hard enough or in the right ways. Americans’ cultural fixation with individualism and self-reliance too often rationalizes systemic injustices as a lack of will or work ethic on the part of individuals who are less fortunate or educated than others.

In a way, the tendency to justify widespread societal disadvantages by placing blame on individuals can be seen as yet another crisis revealed by the pandemic. For our entire history, too many Americans who have benefited from the way things are (in other words, white Americans) have either hesitated or outright refused to change the structures of society that were never built to ensure justice for all.

But COVID-19 has exposed, in Browne’s words, “the bones of our deeply rooted racism and the inequities that they give rise to.”

the smoke cloud from the cameron peak fire
A thick layer of smoke from the Cameron Peak fire hangs over Fort Collins Sept. 7, blocking out the sun and casting dark red light over the town. On Sept. 7, the Cameron Peak fire surpassed 100,000 acres, making it Colorado’s fifth largest fire in recorded history. (Matt Tackett | The Collegian)

The controversy that surrounded the 2020 election results is another crisis exposed by the pandemic. COVID-19 justified an expansion in mail-in ballots, but that expansion led many to question the credibility of the election results before it even happened.

Here, the pandemic exposed a crisis of political participation. America is still struggling to construct methods of voting that can consistently and credibly allow every eligible voter the opportunity to cast their vote.  

Though Browne highlights the social dimension of historical injustices, it’s important to note that disasters can also reveal histories of injustice that express themselves across nonhuman landscapes as well.

For example, the wildfires that ravaged Colorado in 2020 highlighted not only the threatening reality of climate change but also the ways in which humans continue to increase the risk of wildfires through mismanagement of forest ecosystems.

In this instance, a natural disaster exposed the crisis underlying human interactions with our natural world. When these problems are exposed, an opportunity emerges to address and rectify those issues, as in the case of California’s decision to consider Native American fire management practices.

“The time is now to step up and make change to the systems we have built,” Browne wrote. Crises that reveal are urgent opportunities to envision and work toward a better world in every way that we can.

Cody Cooke can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @CodyCooke17.

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About the Contributor
Cody Cooke, Opinion Director
Cody Cooke is the director of the opinion desk for The Collegian and has worked for the newspaper since December 2019. He is a senior studying English and history with a concentration in creative writing. Cooke joined the opinion desk as a consistent way to sharpen his writing and to get involved with other student writers. He began as a columnist and remained a regular writer for more than a year before moving into his director position. He sees opinion writing as a rich and important combination of argumentation and journalism — a way to present facts that goes beyond objective reporting and makes a point. He also sees it as one of the most accessible platforms for any writer to start building a career. Working at The Collegian has taught him to be accountable and responsible for his own work while being proud of creating something worth sharing to a large audience. While not always easy, Cooke's time at The Collegian has been one of the most constructive and satisfying experiences of his collegiate career. 

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