CCAS faculty shared findings from year-long studies of the pandemic at a GW Alumni Association bicentennial celebration.
By B.L. Wilson
In commemoration of the 200th year of the founding of the George Washington University, the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences hosted a virtual discussion on the psychological, socio-economic and cultural impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. and globally, particularly in communities hardest hit.
“When the pandemic is over, when we move back to our normal lives, the inequities are here to stay, and they are going to have long-lasting consequences,” said Elizabeth Vaquera, executive director of the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute and associate professor of sociology and public policy and public administration.
CCAS’s signature bicentennial event, titled “Celebrating 200 years: Assessing the Pandemic’s Long-Term Impact,” featured Dr. Vaquera and two other distinguished faculty members: Antwan Jones, associate professor of sociology, Africana studies and epidemiology; and Sarah Wagner, associate professor of anthropology.
CCAS Dean Paul Wahlbeck moderated the discussion on the emerging trends and challenges ahead from the COVID-19 pandemic. He noted the research “revealed exacerbated underlying injustices and pre-existing inequities.”
As an epidemiologist and sociologist, Dr. Jones said he and scholars from 24 countries examined whether there was a link between the perceived risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 and the associated economic burden and behaviors that were damaging to health, such as smoking and excess alcohol consumption. He said the study found that over time any one of the two risks is associated with these behaviors. Both fears, in tandem, led to even worst outcomes.
“While we have lost thousands of people and loved ones during the pandemic to COVID, we are also getting less healthy globally in large part due to the medical and economic consequences of living in a global pandemic,” he said.
At the Cisneros Institute, where Dr. Vaquera works closely with young Latino adults, she said she was seeing the immediate burden imposed by COVID-19 in a loss of employment, abandonment of education and greater risk of exposure to the virus in crowded, multigenerational housing. An increase in school absenteeism—in some schools as much as 50%—has meant that young people are cut off from socializing with peers, which has contributed to boredom and depression.
“For those in college, college has protected them in many ways with access to broad band, housing, [and from] food insecurity,” she said.
On the other hand, she said, “Relief given to many of us by the government is not reaching many of these Latino families and individuals who might not have a social security number.”
Dr. Wagner described research the Anthropology Department is conducting under a rapid response grant from the National Science Foundation that, with the help of graduate and undergraduate students, captured how Americans were adapting rituals of grieving during the pandemic, as funerals and burial practices were suspended or altered.
“In communities across this country, particularly as the pandemic came in these waves affecting different parts of the country at different moments,” she said, “communities responded in creative improvisational ways.”
In the absence of being able to provide comfort through gatherings, embracing or sharing food, she said, “it was fascinating to see funeral directors who would invite family members to have a candle nearby and light it and hold it up to the camera [during Zoom services].”
Dr. Wagner also noted the creative attempts to advocate for mourners. A Twitter account, for example, that tracked deaths from COVID-19 offered solace, as if the postings were saying “Hey, pay attention. We’re grieving. Please recognize it.”
As to what should emerge from the findings of the various studies conducted by CCAS researchers during the pandemic, the panelists had several recommendations.
“What is needed moving forward is a national directive for states to enact rent and work relief, waivers for late fees for municipal services and investments in social services for vulnerable populations,” Dr. Jones said.
He said the pandemic made clear that “we need to think more broadly about how other aspects in one’s life benefits one’s health in the long run. . . . Housing stability, in essence, is health policy.”
Dr. Vaquera called for “a new sense of empathy, a checking of what our priorities are” as part of recognizing that “communities of color and underserved communities might not have privileges,” and support from family networks.
Dr. Wagner said it is imperative to remember “the almost 600,000 people who have died, the concentric rings of mourners, the children who have lost parents and grandparents.“
“Recognition and support are paramount…,” she said. “If we rush past that it’s a dire and grave mistake, collectively on our society’s part.”