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Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

While at the Acme on campus, I repeatedly notice something important: at least a handful of elderly shoppers. They are often double-masked, wearing gloves, and trying to stay at least six feet away from other shoppers. They aren't hustling through the store searching for guacamole, the craft beer section, or fretting over which oat milk to buy — they are trying to safely obtain their necessities. Across Philadelphia, COVID-19 cases have slowed. However, on campus, concerns have steadily grown over Penn’s ability to enforce COVID-19 safety guidelines. Unlike the bulk of us, vulnerable community members are still trying to survive. They understand the risks the pandemic continues to demonstrate, yet many members of the Penn community have abandoned this notion. We have disregarded our neighbors and placed our entitlement above the lives of others. We need to acknowledge that the pandemic is not over — behaving like it is will only hurt our most vulnerable community members.

The Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium has addressed the needs of the vulnerable population I often find myself standing in the checkout line with. Their mission is simple: to not sit back and watch the atrocious combination of COVID-19 and systemic racism wreak havoc on the communities of color in Philadelphia. The initiative has been a lifeline for many people of color. However, its existence is a reflection of the rampant health care disparities that too many people of color face. The work of this initiative is motivating. It speaks volumes to the importance of focusing on people in need, but it also bears a larger question: what is it about our society that enabled the rate of cases and deaths from the coronavirus to be disproportionately higher in Philadelphia’s Black community?

The truth is, the pandemic has illuminated the fact that only some Americans are granted the privilege of being careless. Simply put, many poor people are not. Last week, I got an unexpected email from an economics professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He congratulated me for a recent award and shared two contradicting quotes about history that were prompted by my recent column. One quote was from George Santayana and the other was from Anne Michaels. The latter keenly highlighted America’s naïveté surrounding our racist history as performative. The professor’s insightful email cued me to examine two very different interpretations of history and the space in which I view them.

Mary Bassett, François-Xavier Bagnoud professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, recently spoke about the pandemic and championed the need for reparations by stating, “There is a strong positive correlation between socioeconomic status or income and health outcomes, including mortality.” People should not die because they are poor. However, many health experts, Bassett included, continue to highlight correlations between poverty, healthcare deficiencies, and mortality. We know that poverty kills. This reality is unacceptable.

The conversation surrounding reparations is not new. Penn historian (and treasure) Mary Frances Berry dedicated an entire book, “My Face is Black is True,” to the life and work of Callie House, a woman born into slavery that ultimately led one of the first organized efforts for reparations in the United States. The campaign for reparations began in the last quarter of the 19th century. Jump forward a couple of centuries to now, and we are still combating the irrational denial towards the palpable need for reparations. Authentic prosperity and progress for descendants of enslaved people is contingent on reparations. H.R. 40 should be successfully taken through markup and passed on the House and Senate floors. There is nothing dull about reparations. We should acknowledge that a debt is owed and have a federal commission look into the benefits reparations would provide to our society. They are a necessary component of American equity. We must start somewhere.

Notably, parents, especially working mothers, have also jumped to the frontline of individuals harshly impacted by the pandemic. As a Penn Family Center fellow and Student Parent Advisory Board member, I have routinely witnessed the ways parents in the Penn community have endured the pandemic. Being a parent right now is nothing less than a multi-layered challenge. To counteract some of the stress Penn parents continue to face, the Family Center and the Women’s Center have collaborated to host both a Black Parent Check-In and a Parent Check-In in the upcoming weeks. Essentially, parents need this space. We need to vent about the roller coaster we have been on for a year. We need to feel a sense of collective understanding. 

We may never recall all we found to be normal prior to the beginning of the pandemic, but we should not get caught up in the importance of trying to regain that sense of normalcy. The pandemic has changed our sense of normal, forever. We should use where we are now as a starting point for change. Currently, we have the capability to embrace a turning point. Let’s begin to address and dismantle the many systems of oppression in America that have come to surface during the pandemic.

JESSICA GOODING is a College senior studying history and English from Philadelphia. Her email is jgooding@sas.upenn.edu.

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