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.
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.
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.