COVID-19 Amplifies Inequality; We Must Do Better

By Christopher J. Keane, Vice President for Research

COVID-19 has loomed large over Washington State University. With respect to research, scholarship, and creative activity, the Office of Research (OR) has worked closely with faculty, staff, and administration leaders to reduce disease spread as part of the University’s initial response to the pandemic. More recently, WSU has implemented a staged return to research in a safe and appropriate manner. In this post, I would like to focus on the broader implications of COVID-19 for research, scholarship, and creative activity at WSU.

COVID-19 amplifies existing significant economic, gender, and racial inequalities both in research and in our everyday lives. While the virus infects people from all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, its impact has been felt most by individuals and communities most vulnerable to a public health crisis, including those who don’t have access to health care or economic opportunity. These broader impacts are a major concern to WSU as a land-grant institution with the mission of improving the lives of all citizens—white, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian—in our state.

According to a recent working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, WSU labor economist Ben Cowan has found that vulnerable populations, like racial and ethnic minorities, people born outside the U.S., women with children, the least educated, and workers with disabilities, have experienced the largest declines in the likelihood of fulltime work and work hours as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

The coronavirus has further widened the gap between low- and high-wage earners. Low-wage earners tend to work in jobs where working from home is not possible. The numbers of low-wage earners on unemployment skyrocketed as states mandated stay-at-home orders.

Early journal submission data also suggest that COVID-19 has significantly impacted women researchers, here at WSU and elsewhere, in the form of decreased research productivity. Women faculty struggle with bias from the outset of their careers. In my own experience as a physical scientist, I have witnessed women graduate students and early career researchers urged to pursue theoretical work instead of experimental science involving large machines and other stereotypical “male” objects. As they advance in their career, women struggle more with work-work balance, juggling their main professional duties with side projects. Numerous studies show that women take on more service work than men and are less protective of their research time. The coronavirus has intensified these inequities by taking away support systems for women, such as childcare.

COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd have placed a spotlight on racial disparities among the Black community. In a new report by the Economic Policy Institute, the study shows that racial and economic inequality has made Black workers, who comprise about 12 percent of the workforce, most vulnerable to the coronavirus. And as noted in Cowan’s working paper, Black workers saw a large increase in people out of the labor market, or not actively looking for jobs.

In many ways, the police violence and the impact of the pandemic show two sides of the same coin. While we have made strides in civil liberties, George Floyd’s death reminds us that some things have not changed. Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Profesor of African American Studies at Princeton University, speaks to the value gap of life, which positions Black lives as inherently less valuable than white lives. Floyd pleaded for life as Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into his neck until Floyd could no longer breathe. His death triggered protests around the country and world.

The pandemic and George Floyd’s death have dramatically highlighted and emphasized racial inequalities. It is on us to create a society that provides opportunity for all, not just some. We can and must do better. We need to enact real change.

Creating change starts first by recognizing our own personal biases and educating ourselves on the history of racial bias in the United States. There are many good references on this topic. But most importantly, when someone affected by racial inequality is speaking – listen.

Educating ourselves about racial issues isn’t enough. We must take action. This is a fundamental difference between the death of George Floyd and previous racial atrocities. We must do more than discuss this and then reflexively resume our everyday activities – we must enact real and enduring change.

A study published in April highlighted that minority and women doctoral candidates innovate at higher rates than majority students, but their contributions are discounted and less likely to earn them academic positions. We must improve racial diversity in science and medicine. But this can only happen when we let go of the myth that academic research has no biases.

We encourage the WSU research community to look for ways that you can make a difference. This may come in the form of having difficult conversations and acknowledging the emotional burden of systemic racism, both in every day life and in research. These difficult conversations will lead our research community to decide where and what they stand for. We will encourage every level of our research community – from department heads to faculty members – to initiate and maintain these discussions with their teams. The Office of Research will lead this charge through facilitating these discussions with the Research Council and other research-related committees and groups.

In the Office of Research, we are committed to creating a culture where our researchers and staff feel safe and valued. Because we know words aren’t enough to create progress and change, we are committed to working with University leadership to identify ways we can create a more inclusive University community. OR will work with WSU leadership to launch a seed grant program aimed at supporting faculty and student scholarship and research aimed at addressing racial injustice. We also will commit to better showcasing the research conducted by our Black and Brown researchers and the research that impacts these communities, both on the Office of Research website and in our Research Annual Reports. Indeed, it is important that we highlight research with high public impact generally.

We ask our entire research community to join us in taking action to end racism. Social change is achieved when a society mobilizes. We can create a better future for the next generation by joining together to end racism. We stand in solidarity with our entire Black and Brown community as we take action.