“There are some key benefits to individualism, but it does undermine our ability to think about other people.” Dr. Sandra Barnes, C.V. Starr Endowed Professor and Chair of Sociology, Brown University, discussing American individualistic culture as it relates to pandemic response
Thursday, October 27, marked the end of The Pandemic Divide conference, a three-day gathering hosted by the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University and sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that features speakers, posters, and discussions around the health, financial, social, and educational effects of the COVID-19 pandemic—including the eponymous forthcoming book from Cook Center researchers and affiliates (Duke University Press, out November 15).
The day began with two institutional investigations: First Dr. Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, Associate Professor of Population Health Sciences, core faculty member at the Cook Center, and founder of the COVID Prison Project, explored the racial elements of mass incarceration in America. Joining her on-stage were her colleagues Forrest Behne of the University of North Carolina Center for Health Equity Research and Craig Waleed of Disability Rights NC, two activists and educators who could speak about the firsthand horrors of the justice system. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Waleed said, people quarantined in prison were placed in solitary confinement, and thus face “punitive and deteriorated conditions that cause the deterioration of the human psyche.”
Then, Dr. Barnes shared research from her chapter in The Pandemic Divide, which featured interviews of a multigenerational family and explored their varying attitudes toward religion, work, relationships, and more in the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, Dr. Barnes highlighted the stability and ameliorative effects that the church and faith can provide during such troubling times, while also making note of the dangers that staunch, unchanging (and selfish) attitudes among certain communities can manifest.
The second half of the day featured additional book contributors. Dr. Mary T. Bassett, the Health Commissioner of the New York State Department of Health and author of the book’s foreword, joined via Zoom to share her perspective and some statistics. Despite the recent news that the mortality rate among whites is now exceeding other groups’, Bassett said, “the data clearly show that every time there’s a surge, there’s a splaying again in the data, in mortalities and hospitalizations [by race],” with blacks and Latinos falling behind.
Following Dr. Bassett were Dr. Kristen Stephens, Professor of the Practice and Chair in the Department of Education at Duke and Co-Director of the Educational Policy Working Group at the Cook Center, and Dr. Kisha Daniels, Assistant Professor of the Practice in the Department of Education at Duke and Faculty Affiliate at the Cook Center. Drs. Stephens and Daniels, whose chapter in the book was also co-authored by Cook Center Educational Equity and Policy Specialist Erica Roberson Phillips, spoke on “The Rebirth of K-12 Education: Post-pandemic Opportunities,” highlighting that while the education system operates at the intersection of many systems, it alone is often charged with solving the issues arising across these disparate systems. Accordingly, Dr. Stephens said, “the whole paradigm of what learning looks like needs to change.”
That emphasis on wholescale change, of a dramatic “re-visioning” of society, was on display throughout the conference and especially on this final day. As Dr. Barnes’ quote makes clear, the individual approach is a fallible one; greater collective action and imagination, not resignation, is required to build the world that we want.
Accordingly, the final remarks of the conference, delivered by Dr. William A. “Sandy” Darity Jr., the Center’s Founding Director and the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics at Duke University, expressed these ideas. In outlining a range of potential policy responses—including, among other components, universal wi-fi, improved medical care and education, an end to solitary confinement, and reparations for black Americans—Dr. Darity was unequivocal that the response cannot be to restore pre-pandemic educational, social, and institutional practices. Instead, he said, leaders and practitioners need to seize this “opportunity to do things that should’ve been done before the pandemic.”
Highlights from the conference can be viewed on the Cook Center’s social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr), including all recordings from all days on the Cook Center’s YouTube channel. If you’d like to stay up to date on all Cook Center happenings, you can subscribe to our monthly newsletter here.