Museum of Natural History looks at pandemic’s inequities

The Museum of Natural History’s latest exhibit, “Facing the Pandemic,” dissects the disparate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on different communities and shares stories of personal experiences from early in the pandemic.

Compiling data documenting these disparities and tapping into research on racial and economic public health implications, the exhibit shares important truths about social and health inequities across the country and in Washtenaw County.

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Portraits and personal stories humanize the data and show the breadth of local experience at the onset of pandemic. From a person who was incarcerated, to a frontline worker, to individuals based at home during this time, each story provides a unique perspective on COVID’s influence on their lives.

“We wanted to show that, though all people experienced something profound during the pandemic, it was not equal,” said Melissa Westlake, the museum’s assistant director for exhibits. “Some people experienced more loss, more financial hardship, more severe illness, and that was due to the way society is structured, not their individual choices.

“We raise a lot of difficult issues throughout this exhibit with the hope that, while the solutions will take time and societal shifts, we can all individually think about what we can do to help move toward change.”

Photo of visitors interacting with exhibit
The data behind the social and racial inequities that fueled the COVID-19 pandemic are humanized and brought to life through the moving personal experiences of several members of the Washtenaw County community. (Photo courtesy of Museum of Natural History)

Analyzing how things could have been done differently at the start of the pandemic to decrease its tremendous impact is vital to the future of marginalized communities. It opens one’s eyes to the systemic issues that made this pandemic an inevitability, and that for things to unfold differently next time, drastic changes to our socioeconomic landscape would need to be implemented.

Involvement in the exhibit was universitywide with more than 40 contributors from the School of Public Health, LSA, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, departments of Epidemiology and Sociology, Washtenaw County, Michigan government and more.

“Facing the Pandemic” is free and open to the public, and on view through February 2023.

A few areas of focus include:

Unique experiences: The exhibit exposes visitors to the experiences of others and the unique impact the same pandemic may have had on the different lives of colleagues, neighbors and friends.

Systemic racism: In August 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive directive recognizing racism as a public health crisis having impacted decades of housing practices and government policies that have lowered the life expectancy of Black residents.

Research led by Sarah Miller, assistant professor of business economics and public policy, uncovered that during the pandemic, Black people in the highest income groups had mortality rates more than three times higher than those experienced by the lowest income demographic of white people between 2019-20. Further, Hispanic people experienced higher mortality rates than non-Hispanic white people, regardless of insurance, housing situation or essential worker status.

In April 2020, of the 112 Washtenaw County residents hospitalized due to COVID, 48% were Black while only 12% of Washtenaw County’s population is Black. In Michigan, COVID cases among the Latino community were more than 70% higher than the rate among white residents. Early in the pandemic, the Navajo Nation experienced more cases and deaths per capita than any individual U.S. state.

A broken system: In America, inequities are baked into society in ways that impact every experience. Because of this imbalance, COVID-19 hit some communities much harder than others in hospitalizations and deaths. A U-M study found the death rate of those earning below the poverty line was twice that of people earning middle-class wages or higher in 2020 vs. 2019.

“We have structured society in a way that when a virus arrives, it’s going to impact certain communities more than others because of that structure, not the individual actions of the people in those communities,” said Paul Fleming, assistant professor health behavior and health education.

The ability to work from home or take paid sick leave requires accommodations from employers, while 33 million U.S. workers — almost a quarter of the workforce — do not receive paid sick leave. These workers had to choose between working while sick or losing pay — or even their jobs. When unpaid leave and “essential worker status” met COVID-19, the results were deadly.

Tell your story: Visitors are invited to share their experiences in an open format by answering questions at the conclusion of the exhibit. Answers are meant to be personal and to create a shared experience for those willing to participate.

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