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What Will We Learn From Our Collective Vulnerability?

by Leslie Starsoneck
What Will We Learn From Our Collective Vulnerability?

I joined the staff at the Johnson Center at the beginning of April as director of learning services, amidst a pandemic. I’m getting to know my colleagues and the Center’s work remotely. It has its challenges, but nothing that comes close to what most Americans are confronting. Reflecting on what is happening in our world can be, in a word, overwhelming.

As one of my coping strategies, I’ve been thinking about the silver linings of this pandemic. Among my favorites to consider:

  • We have less pollution from land and air traffic (Picheta, 2020; Meredith, 2020).
  • We are critically reflecting on our personal consumerism (Drenik, 2020; Howland, 2020).
  • We are slowing down our schedules and activities (Lightman, 2020).
  • We have a heightened understanding and awareness of vulnerability (Scotti, 2020).

If it happens and it sticks, this last bullet has real potential. Never before have so many people for so long a period of time, and regardless of socioeconomic status:

  • had their own and their family and friends’ personal health and safety seriously threatened;
  • lost their freedom of movement;
  • experienced food insecurity, including a lack of access to food;
  • experienced job loss or job reduction;
  • had to quarantine.

A lot of people are feeling very uncomfortable.

The general population is facing unprecedented threats to their personal health and safety, freedom of movement, and food and housing security. These threats are also being felt by many people whose pre-pandemic lives reflected disproportionate negative impacts in these same areas.

“[T]he discomfort we are experiencing is all too routine for many individuals and groups and falls mainly along racial lines.”

I don’t wish hardship on anyone, yet, I hope that the disruption many of us are experiencing during this unprecedented crisis will lead us to more fully consider and take action to reduce disparities that create ongoing hardship and vulnerability. I hope we come to better appreciate that the discomfort we are experiencing is all too routine for many individuals and groups and falls mainly along racial lines.

In what ways is the COVID-19 crisis surfacing these existing inequities?

Personal Health

The virus is attacking perfectly healthy people.

It’s also attacking individuals who are already members of groups that have a shortened life expectancy, reduced access to quality and preventative medical care, high rates of certain diseases like heart disease and asthma, and/or live in areas with environmental hazards (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2020; Economic Innovation Group, 2020; Casper et al., 2016; World Health Organization, 2020).

Personal Safety

The virus is making people afraid to leave their homes. And it’s largely invisible.

It’s also threatening people who live in unsafe neighborhoods and fear for their own safety and their children’s safety in their homes and/or when they walk out the door (Molnar, Gortmaker, Bull, & Buka, 2004; Teitelman, et al., 2010; Parker, 2017; Lynn-Whaley & Sugarmann, 2017).

Freedom of Movement

The virus is restricting peoples’ freedom to go where they like, when they like.

People who are incarcerated, a rate that is consistently disproportionate for people of color (Wagner & Bertram, 2020; The Sentencing Project, n.d.) are at heightened risk of exposure and poor health outcomes if they become ill (Williams & Ivory, 2020).

Food Insecurity

The virus is causing shortages in some foods and is creating questions about what is safe to eat.

Many people in both rural and urban geographies live in food deserts and/or cannot afford to eat (United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, 2020).

Displacement or Insecure Housing

The virus is exposing sick people to well people in their homes. It’s moving people in assisted living facilities to other facilities. It’s threatening peoples’ ability to pay their rent or mortgage.

People who are homeless and/or live in congregate housing (National Alliance to End Homelessness, n.d.) are at particular risk of exposure and worse health outcomes from the disease.

The pandemic contains a story of disproportionate impact and the heightening of vulnerabilities. How people develop an understanding of that story and are motivated to take action to eliminate disparities is what I hope will be one of our silver linings.

What I hope is that the common vulnerability the nation is collectively feeling will create some urgency to work to recognize and reduce disparities. My theory of change is that our own vulnerability will create empathy which will lead to action and support for policies that address disparities. Creating a welcome path to that reflection and action could help further the dialogue.

“[T]his framework…acknowledges that we are not the same day-in and day-out, but it allows us to choose a path with every step.”

Ibram X. Kendi (2019) in his book, How to Be an Antiracist, disputes the notion that people are either racist or they are not. He proposes that each decision, each behavior, is an opportunity to support something anti-racist or not. I like this framework not only because it acknowledges that we are not the same day-in and day-out, but it allows us to choose a path with every step.

The Johnson Center aspires to reflect a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) perspective in our professional offerings. Please contact us at if you have requests for particular offerings or ideas for integrating DEI into professional offerings.


Pedro Gomes contributed research to this article.


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