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Racial Justice

Pandemic Ethics

Racial Justice

The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated deep racial inequities in the United States. Due to disparities in access to and discriminatory practices in healthcare, over-representation in frontline work, a wealth gap, and countless other manifestations of systemic racism and individual biases, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people have been disproportionately affected by the virus and its economic impact. Asian Americans, in all their diversity, have been scapegoated and subject to rising discrimination and violence. Ongoing, documented violence toward Black bodies by police inspired mass street protests in 2020, despite pandemic lockdowns. Jewish tradition implores us to pursue justice, protect the structurally oppressed, and see all people as made in the divine image. We are — and have always been — a multiracial people. For these reasons and more, we embrace racial justice as a Jewish value.


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Current thinking

The Reason Black Americans Are Getting Vaccinated At A Much Slower Rate Is Not Because They’re Reluctant

By Alex Samuels — March 8, 2021

Black Americans are getting vaccinated at a much slower rate than their white counterparts. This is troubling given how hard the pandemic has hit Black Americans. Issues like accessibility, a lack of investment in Black communities and overall health inequities are the biggest barriers for Black people to get the coronavirus vaccine.

“There’s a real urgency in making sure the racial and ethnic disparities we see in the current vaccine rollout is addressed quickly, though, especially as the U.S. approaches the one-year anniversary of its first lockdowns. But (…) we should be clear-eyed about what the problems are, and careful to not rely on an incomplete “vaccine hesitancy narrative” to explain why Black Americans are getting vaccinated at lower rates.”

The Ethics of Prioritizing COVID-19 Vaccination

By Peter Singer — January 19, 2021

As vaccines remain scarce, what does an ethical policy of vaccine distribution look like? Is there a way to maximize public health and also correct for the social inequities that have led to the disproportionate toll of COVID on minority communities? Ethicist Peter Singer advocates for an approach to vaccine distribution that takes racial disparities into account. 

“If the US retains the current vaccination priorities, but adds the principle of equal treatment for people at an equal level of risk, policymakers will need to estimate at what age members of African-American, Latinx, and Native American communities run the same risk as 75-year-old white or Asian Americans, and then consider race and ethnicity in deciding who is eligible at what age.”

Racial Injustice in U.S. Health Care Calls for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission

By Maya Sabatello — January 12, 2021

Maya Sabatello, an expert on bioethics human rights, proposes a COVID-19 Truth and Reconciliation Commission to expose and address how structural racism exacerbated the devastation caused by the pandemic. 

“A Truth and Reconciliation Commission would allow racial and ethnic communities that have been targets of structural racism and have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic to speak up and share their experiences in a forum that aims to lead to real change. This would include Black/African American, Latinx, and Indigenous communities but should also be inclusive of other groups experiencing structural discrimination. It would also give clinicians a forum to have conversations around the systemic issues they face in providing equal care so that they can help reconstruct the system.”

COVID-19’s Disparate Impacts Are Not a Story about Race

By Jennifer Tsai — September 8, 2020

Emergency medicine physician Jennifer Tsai warns of increasingly overt racism against Asian Americans. This anti-Asian racism is a rehash of the historic entanglement of pandemic xenophobia with disease, genes, race, and risk. Immigrants are caricatured as dangerous sources of disease.

“In this pandemic, data are taking a back seat to racial prejudice. The irrational racist surveillance that leads to the brutalization of Black Americans in their neighborhoods is spilling into public health and medical care. Fueled by a president who continues to blame a faceless China for the pandemic’s miseries, citizens and caregivers of color face fear and disdain. Simultaneously, re-emerging myths of genetic racial differences scrutinize bodies of color as sources of disease, all while obscuring the deadly climate of injustice that hastens breathlessness. America’s racism is rampant, and it’s shaping the response to this pandemic to the detriment of us all.”

Who will get the coronavirus vaccine first in the US?

By Olivia Goldhill — August 12, 2020

Health experts are making a serious argument for prioritizing vaccine recipients based on race. Latino and Black Americans are more likely to work jobs that don’t permit them to work from home, such as transport and service jobs that create greater risk of spreading coronavirus. And Black and Latino people are twice as likely to die from coronavirus as white people.

“Dayna Bowen Matthew, dean of the George Washington University Law School and an ACIP consultant on vaccine distribution, told the Times that racism should be directly addressed in vaccine distribution plans. “It’s racial inequality—inequality in housing, inequality in employment, inequality in access to health care—that produced the underlying diseases,” she said. “That’s wrong. And it’s that inequality that requires us to prioritize by race and ethnicity.””

Is It Okay to Protest During a Pandemic? The Coronavirus Ethicist Has the Answer.

By Karen Stohr — June 4, 2020

Is it ethical to attend a demonstration during the Covid-19 pandemic? Dr. Karen Stohr, professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, affirms that it is—under the right conditions. The most important ethical task is to make sure one’s behavior eases the burdens of racial injustice. If one can’t demonstrate without putting oneself or others at risk, one should find other ways to oppose racism.

 “Everyone should be concerned about the devastating impact of the pandemic on African Americans, and each of us, regardless of race, has a moral responsibility to do what we can to minimize and ameliorate it. Obviously anyone who has symptoms of Covid-19 or has reason to think they’ve been exposed to it should not demonstrate elbow-to-elbow with other people. But we know that people can spread the virus without realizing that they’re ill. So the most ethically responsible way to protest is to do so as carefully as you possibly can.”

For further reading, we recommend you this article that provides a more elaborate analysis of the ethics of social distancing in light of the Black Lives Matter protests.

Remember, No One Is Coming to Save Us

By Roxane Gay — May 30, 2020

Author Roxane Gay writes that even during a pandemic, racism is as pernicious as ever. Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting the black community. There seems to be no context in which black lives matter. 

“Eventually, doctors will find a coronavirus vaccine, but black people will continue to wait, despite the futility of hope, for a cure for racism. We will live with the knowledge that a hashtag is not a vaccine for white supremacy. We live with the knowledge that, still, no one is coming to save us. The rest of the world yearns to get back to normal. For black people, normal is the very thing from which we yearn to be free.”

Dancing between Light and Shadow – Increasing Awareness of the Impact of Covid 19 Disparities on Jews of Color

By Yavilah McCoy — May 21, 2020

Yavilah McCoy is the CEO of DIMENSIONS Inc. in Boston, an organization that works with Jews of Color and their allies to develop programs to support JOC. She describes how the COVID-19 outbreak disproportionately affects women of color, who face increased vulnerability to inequitable systems that have been marginalizing and killing people of color for centuries.

“Among the communities of Jews of Color and people of color that Dimensions offers direct-service to, we encountered hourly wage earners who have been or are worried about being laid off from work. We encountered leaders in our programs who work in education and healthcare and who have been deemed “essential” to the American economy, but have not received adequate protections or a living wage under government law for their labor. In recent weeks, as areas of the country have begun to open, we have all felt the impact of the death of Ahmaud Arbery and the disparate reality that as people across the country are now venturing outdoors after quarantining for weeks, many people of color can not leave their homes for a jog without fearing being gunned down and killed.”

Structural Racism, White Fragility, and Ventilator Rationing Policies

By Charlene Galarneau – April 20, 2020

Charlene Galarneau, senior lecturer in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Bioethics, exposes how procedures for rationing ventilators differentially affect Blacks and other people of color. She calls on bioethicists and other decision makers to acknowledge and confront structural racism in pandemic policy making.

“What to do about structural racism in health care is a critical conversation that requires white people, as members of the dominant racial group, to sit with the uncomfortable reality that we have benefited from a racial hierarchy that has harmed others. It requires us to acknowledge that structural racism is present in health care, health policy, and public health; to understand that the intent of policymakers is less important than the effects of their policies. And to trust that those most affected by structural racism have crucial knowledge about effective strategies to reduce and end it. To begin that conversation, bioethicists must, at the least, stop denying that structural racism exists in health care policy and that it can kill.”


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