Most of the discussion about a coronavirus vaccine has centered on when a vaccine will be available. But Elizabeth Grennan Browning, the Midwestern/Indiana community history fellow at Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute, says one aspect of the discussion has been missing: African Americans should be at the front of the line to get the vaccine. As has happened with most disease outbreaks in U.S. history, socioeconomically vulnerable members of society are suffering the most from COVID-19. In particular, African Americans have contracted and died of the disease at disproportionately high rates. But Browning says even if African Americans are prioritized for the vaccine, they are less likely to trust medical science and would be less interested in a coronavirus vaccine if it were currently available, according to a recent survey. That response, Browning says, is due in part to the racist way that compulsory vaccination campaigns were deployed in the early 20th century, as well as other long-term racism in our medical system. For instance, during periodic outbreaks of smallpox in the early 20th century, African Americans were especially susceptible to forced vaccinations and were vulnerable to strong-arm disease control measures, including the confinement of suspected disease carriers, the establishment of armed quarantines, the seizure of homes to be used as smallpox pesthouses and forced removal of infected people from their homes. Browning says even with a vaccine, African Americans will still be among the most susceptible subgroups because of the ways in which structural racism has allowed the neglect of Black communities and African Americans’ skepticism about public health campaigns. Browning says both of these variables serve as a stark reminder that this country has much work to do to reckon with its history of racism and to provide for the well-being of all its citizens.
In addition to waiting on a vaccine, the pandemic also has Americans anxious about entering the winter months ahead while practicing social distancing. As days become shorter and temperatures begin to drop, it is normal for some people to experience declining levels of energy and mood. Liz Malatestinic, a senior lecturer in human resources management at IU’s Kelley School of Business, says with this year’s pandemic fatigue, it is likely that some employees working from home might begin to experience feelings of isolation again as the cold keeps people indoors more and socializing less, potentially leading to higher levels of stress, burnout and depression. Malatestinic says it is important to start thinking about ways to keep people engaged and socially interactive, which is not only good for employees’ mental health and feeling of connection to others, but also good for the employer. Creating a sense of belonging can go a long way toward creating that sense of engagement, but it can be a little more challenging through a computer screen. Malatestinic says asking employees to turn cameras on in virtual meetings can have a big impact. Reassure them it doesn’t matter what they are wearing, or have theme days focusing on sports or holidays. Some companies also are having photo contests for the best background or trivia contests, Malatestinic says, providing virtual gift cards to help with morale. Malatestinic says employers should also schedule 15-minute coffee breaks with individual employees or small groups. Let them know there’s no agenda, and that it’s just a check-in to see how people are doing. Malatestinic says creating these virtual water-cooler moments can definitely help stave off feelings of isolation.