By Sandro Galea and Salma M. Abdalla, JAMA Network, June 12, 2020
More than 110 000 people have died in the US because of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, a pathogen that was unknown just 6 months ago. Ubiquitous fear and anxiety that accompanied the emergence of the new coronavirus led to widespread limits on physical contact in attempts to mitigate the spread of the virus. That in turn brought the US economy to a halt, resulting in more than 40 million people filing for unemployment, approximating numbers not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the past month, the killing of several unarmed black men and women—Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd— has spurred widespread civil unrest, with night after night of demonstrations demanding reform of systems of policing that have disproportionately harmed black people for centuries.
These 3 events, the pandemic, massive unemployment, and the recent protests, have occurred concurrently. Federal and state officials offer daily summaries of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases and deaths. At the same time, millions of people across the country have been adversely affected by unanticipated unemployment, with higher unemployment rates among black and Hispanic workers compared with white workers. The resurgence of anger at long-standing racism and racial inequities was added to the anxiety and tension of the pandemic, creating a combustible scene of national civil unrest. Deep political divisions have shaped the moment from the start. Partisan divides have informed opinions around the extent of a national shutdown needed to mitigate pandemic spread, a pandemic that has disproportionately led to the deaths of black people, and about how to address the legitimate concerns of thousands of individuals protesting the murder of black men and women.
Each of these 3 national events would be sufficient to dominate any given year’s news cycle, yet all 3 have unfolded in the first 5 months of the year 2020. There is much to be written about this moment with the calm dispatch of time, and it remains to be seen what narratives will endure in the public mind decades hence. But the narrative that should emerge centrally—which influences each of the 3 events the country is experiencing—is the role of underlying divides in making the US vulnerable to, and shaping the contours of, each of the events of 2020.