President-elect Joe Biden has made history: This week, he announced that Representative Deb Haaland would be his pick for head of the Interior Department, the first Native American person ever to hold a cabinet-level position, which would make Biden’s cabinet the most diverse in history. This kind of representation is important, but it’s not enough, because far from Washington, Native Americans are dying at disproportionate rates from the coronavirus pandemic. In October, the death rate from Covid-19 on the Navajo Nation was higher than in any state. In South Dakota, the Cheyenne River Lakota reservation is fighting to keep roadblocks up to prevent the spread of the virus, despite the order from the state’s governor to take them down. And Neshoba County, Miss., home of the Mississippi Band of the Choctaw, had the highest rate of death per capita in the entire of Mississippi due to coronavirus, devastating the tribe. Neshoba: If that rings a bell, it’s probably because it was at the Neshoba County Fair in 1980 that then-candidate Ronald Reagan launched his campaign for the presidency on the platform of “states’ rights,” ushering in four decades of neoliberal policies that have devalued and gutted many of the core functions of government meant to protect us from… deadly epidemics.
On this week’s System Check, Melissa and Dorian follow up on last week’s episode to explore the system of finding a cure for the coronavirus epidemic that has killed more than 300,000 Americans so far. Finding a vaccine, for sure a scientific feat of epic proportions, is hopeful news. And while necessary, it is not sufficient to understand and transform the systems that have resulted in mind-numbing mass death. We have to push ourselves to also ask the questions: What are the systems that created and sustained the crisis? And how can we bring about a dramatic change not just of the system of science or the system of public health, but rather of the whole ecosystem that made this pandemic possible? We offer a few plausible answers found at the intersection of science, social science, and activism.
For insight into these intersecting systems, Melissa and Dorian talk to Gregg Gonsalves, assistant professor of epidemiology and associate professor of Llaw at Yale University, to help us think about the Covid-19 pandemic beyond a clinical perspective. And he offers ideas about how to build our social immunity to defeat the virus, and the vast inequalities that make it deadlier for far too many.
We then check-in with Alondra Nelson, president of the Social Science Research Council and the Harold F. Linder Professor in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J. She tells us about the creation of the Coronavirus Syllabus, and the necessary efforts to mobilize science and social science for the public good. And she reminds us that the solutions to this pandemic are not only biological and clinical, but also require communities of social and human sciences working collaboratively to tackle exclusion, exploitation, and inequality.
The missing piece, and one too often left out of public health conversations, is grassroots organizing. That’s why our final word this week comes from Lenice Emmanuel, executive director of the Alabama Institute for Social Justice. She reminds us that activism is what system change looks like on the ground, and that what Black people in the South and everyone vulnerable and marginalized across our country need are systems that allow them to thrive. And yes, child care and coinage.
Transforming analysis into action, the System Check Team gives listeners three action items this week:
- Mask Up: We said it last week and we’ll say it again: With vaccines rolling out, there is light at the end of this tunnel. But we’re far from the end of the pandemic, and your actions now could save the lives of people in your community, maybe even people in your own home.
- Educate yourself: The Coronavirus Syllabus that Alondra Nelson highlights in this week’s episode is a cross-disciplinary treasure trove of research about the virus, a humane list of music and literature about past pandemics, and helpful syllabi and teaching resources for educating young people about this difficult time in our history. Dig in!
- RSVP: Lastly, you’re invited to the first-ever System Check Book Club. This Saturday, December 19, at 5 pm Eastern, join Melissa and Dorian for a live video event—they’ll be talking the authors of some of their favorite books from this year, and looking ahead to titles to watch out for in 2021. Register here for this free event.
As always, we welcome your additions to our Checklist! Use our Twitter and Facebook pages to add your comments, suggested actions, and organizations to support. And if you like the show, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts for new episodes every Friday.
System Check is a project of The Nation magazine, hosted by Melissa Harris-Perry and Dorian Warren and produced by Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Support for System Check comes from Omidyar Network, a social change venture that is reimagining how capitalism should work. Learn more about their efforts to recenter our economy around individuals, community, and societal well-being at Omidyar.com. Our executive producer is Frank Reynolds. Our theme music is by Brooklyn-based artist and producer Jachary.
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