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With the anticipation of increasing distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, Americans are looking forward to a “return to normal.” We’ve all heard these words, intended to inspire hope. And they do, for some. But the reality is that “normal” is a privilege, one that is out of reach for millions of Americans who had been pushed up against immovable barriers and into systems of oppression long before the arrival of Covid-19.

The coronavirus has killed more than 460,000 Americans as we write this, and the toll continues to climb. Though the virus does not discriminate by race or class or gender or age, its undeniable talent appears to be exposing the devastating inequities that come with being a person of color in America.

The “normal” to which many are so eager to return was the normal that helped pave the path for this devastation. Before Covid-19, normal meant widening racial gaps in income and wealth, higher rates of food insecurity among Black and Latinx households, and less than half of low-wage workers with access to paid sick leave. These are only some of the systemic inequities experienced by people of color who have struggled within a system undergirded by racism.

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Covid-19 made these disparities impossible to ignore. Normal was not equitable or just, so back to normal means that the societal vulnerabilities that fueled Covid-19 remain, placing the nation’s collective safety, security, and economic prosperity at risk.

By itself, having a new administration or Congress in place does nothing to change these realities. Temporary measures during public health emergencies do even less because they can generate a false sense of accomplishment and complacency. It’s akin to Newton’s first law: An object at rest will stay at rest and an object in motion will stay in motion unless some force is applied to it.

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President Biden has committed to the boldest health equity agenda in our nation’s history. On his first day in office, he signed an executive order titled “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.” Less than a week later, on a day when the administration’s theme for the day was equity, the president signed executive orders committing the federal government to address and condemn discrimination. This commitment is laudable, but it must be followed by equally bold policies.

Let us be clear: The American people, especially people and communities of color, are in desperate need of immediate economic support and aid. But while necessary, these are transient, temporary solutions necessitated by decades, even centuries, of racist policies. A moratorium on evictions and foreclosures does not address the nation’s housing crisis, which continues to disenfranchise and discriminate against Black and Latinx Americans. An increase in access to food for children whose schools have closed does little to address the hunger that has pervaded communities of color for decades.

These short-term gains are essential, but they fail to address the conditions that created the vulnerabilities upon which Covid-19 preyed.

Normal is merely the uninterrupted systems and policies that prop up and perpetuate inequities. And only policy can fix what policy has broken, like increasing the federal minimum wage, making investments to improve the quality and availability of affordable housing, providing incentives to improve schools, and repairing and rebuilding businesses owned by people of color in underserved communities. These and other policies and plans have been researched, proposed, and researched again. Our elected leaders know what to do. They need the will and support to do it.

A return to normal fails George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others killed by police. A return to normal fails the tens of thousands of people of color who were unnecessarily lost to Covid-19. The energy and resolve that fueled every march and every vote in a year of record turnout must now be refocused to apply pressure and demand accountability from every elected leader.

In her inaugural poem, past National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman reminded us, among countless soul-piercing refrains, that “being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we stepped into and how we repair it.”

All Americans need to hear and heed her sage and sobering words. To build back better, we must first look back and dig deep to uncover the inequities of U.S. systems and the laws and policies that serve to prop them up — and change them.

Daniel E. Dawes is a lawyer, director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine, and author of “The Political Determinants of Health” (Johns Hopkins University Press, March 2020). Brian C. Castrucci is an epidemiologist, public health practitioner, and president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation.

  • How about we get kids back in schools without masks and then we address the politically opportunistic wish list?

  • Looks like a diatribe on leftist social activism on this medical information service.
    George Floyd had multiple times the level of Fentanyl of most addicts in his system when he died. Breonna Taylor was, indeed, asleep and, I assume, not guilty of anything. Other black people, like white people, I assume, killed by police had varying levels of culpability when carefully investigated objectively. Most police don’t shoot people unless they feel at risk;there are occasional outliers. Systemic racism …needs to be evaluated by department. The black community has a vested interest in seeing themselves as victims, which is why they have achieved less compared to other groups.

  • More leftist scolding is how i see this OpEd, which does not actually back up any of it’s claims.
    The way I see it, the former administration was doing far more to slow down “widening racial gaps” in income and wealth than either Obama was, or, from the look so far, Biden will be, able to accomplish.
    The authors talk about “LatinX” people. Ignoring the arrogance of referring to a group by a name none of them asked for – the extremist feminists could not forebear the Spanish language convention of describing a group of male and females by the male form – even though Latinas themselves are not bothered by it – ignoring that for now – the fact is, by keeping illegal immigrants out, Trump raised wages for everyone who was here, and in the working class- the first REAL wage gains in 50 years were reported a few months before the epidemic hit = in my area, unemployment went to 2% , and the local chain hamburger places put up signs looking for people to work for $16 per hour, “with health benefits” – most likely, the health benefits were extremely sparse, in reality – but a kid fresh out of high school could make $32,000/year, no experience necessary.
    It is also worth pointing out – the housing crisis so much bemoaned, would be likewise greatly alleviated without illegal immigration . It is a double whammy. A poor American growing up in my area, unless someone in his family’s past got a house – is going to pay extremely high rent, AND get low wages – or WAS – these problems were being alleviated under Trump administion rules – despite state and local governments doing their best to defeat them.
    The Democrats choose the well being of people who were not born here, who the US has absolutely no obligations to, over Americans facing the same economic challenges. I do not at all think the Hispanics are less worthy than Americans – many are more worthy, – but our government is supposed to work for us – not save the entire world all at once by fiat, which is essentially the program of people who want to feel they are virtuous without having to consider the details.
    Oh, I forgot to also mention by the way- the schools in very high illegal immigration states, such as California, have the lowest funding per student of any in the country- the solution offered for that, of course, is just raise taxes more, but clearly that has reached a limit- the billionaires seem to bailing out in anticipation, in fact, but even if they did not, the taxpayers have had it.

    I do not want to encourage anyone to be angry towards anyone- but in fact, the interests of these two groups are in conflict.

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