News & Ideas

Fighting COVID-19 Where it Thrives

Covid-19 virus illustration

This summer, Oluwatobi (Tobi) I. Ariyo ’22, Mary Galstian ’22, and Sanjana Singh ’23 worked with Lucie E. White, the Louis A. Horvitz Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, as part of a Radcliffe Research Team. The group contributed to the project “Structural Determinants of COVID ‘Hot Spots,’” which aims to map areas with higher outbreaks of COVID-19, identify vulnerabilities, and devise interventions. 

Tell me about the communities you focused on during this project.

Tobi: Sanjana and I looked at Chelsea, Massachusetts, which has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. We were looking at the different structural determinants that created the vulnerabilities in this community and that really already existed before COVID-19.

Sanjana: We talked to leaders of community organizations and local politicians. We learned their takes on what they believe needs to change in Chelsea. They’re so much more familiar with the people, and the stories they told us were really interesting. We couldn’t read about that in statistics—those interviews provided a human side to our research.

Mary: We also focused on the community of Immokalee, Florida. We traced the historical underpinnings of the racism prevalent there. We looked at anything that caused the present-day vulnerabilities, which were vulnerabilities that were then exacerbated by COVID-19. It was an interesting blend of what the pandemic can teach us about high-risk communities and what we can propose to advocacy groups or the government do about it.

What moments stand out from your conversations with stakeholders in these communities?

Mary: When we were looking into Immokalee, we realized that this community is the second-largest contributor to the agricultural industry of the nation. So, despite having so many essential workers on the front lines, we saw that the farmworkers’ needs were not being addressed like they were for nearby communities. Just as Sanjana and Tobi said, these problems were already here, but COVID-19 really highlighted them. Also, Immokalee is not registered as a municipal community, so it does not have its own government. We looked at the effect that the lack of that local government has on taking care of the community. 

Sanjana: I conducted interviews with representatives and aides to state senators. Through those, it was interesting to see how difficult it is to push legislation through. Of course, we hear that Congress is gridlocked. But even at the local level of the Massachusetts legislature, aides told us about bills they are struggling to pass and how many obstacles exist. I did not fully understand how complicated the whole legal process was before.

Tobi: I now have a better understanding of the fear that documentation status brings for certain individuals. It’s something we see in the news all the time, and it’s very politicized. Even though COVID-19 testing centers are opening up and these centers say that documentation status won’t impact you, when you go to the center and see police officers or a National Guard presence, that fear prevents people from getting COVID-19 testing. Then you think about other aspects in life, where documentation status just really cripples you and keeps you in your position without any help at all.

Your project remains relevant, especially as communities continue to struggle with COVID-19 outbreaks. Will it continue?  

Tobi: We’re hoping our research will continue. Uncovering the vulnerabilities in these communities was just the first step, which I feel was really crucial. We hope our research puts how we look at these hot spots into a nontraditional perspective. I hope that motivates policymakers to really look at these issues differently and more holistically, in order to create policies that actually create the change that is needed.

Mary: We’ve established connections and have discussed continuing communication with a representative of the Immokalee community. Another option that we’re considering is writing a larger paper about our research and specifically directing it to stakeholders and policymakers. We would want to show them what this research means and how they can use it for making their own decisions.

Sanjana: Some community organizations that we spoke with in Chelsea wanted to schedule follow-up meetings. From those conversations, we’ll have a better idea of what we want to do to keep the momentum going and to ensure that actual, tangible change comes from our work.

Interview was edited for clarity and length.

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