This Pandemic is a Portal, and Virtual Exchange is Our Way Forward

Arequipa, Peru March 2020

Everyone has a story

On March 15, 2020, daily life in Peru was brought to an abrupt halt when President Martín Vizcarra decreed a national state of emergency, effectively closing all borders and imposing mandatory stay-at-home orders for the country. Two weeks later, Josh and I found ourselves hopping on a bus hired by the United States government to Lima, shuffling into a hangar on the Peruvian air force base Grupo 8, and boarding a government chartered flight back to our nation’s capital.

In the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic, my partner and I chose to leave our plans for volunteering and setting up a second virtual exchange between students in Peru and the U.S. behind.*

Leaving Peru is our story. But as we have quickly come to learn, nearly every single one of us has a story of plans-altered in this.

In effect, the novel coronavirus has demobilized the already weak and stressed systems that facilitated its very spread. The resulting pandemic has unearthed major economic, social, and environmental problems that span the globe. And in so doing, it has shined a light on the vast interconnectedness of not only our systems, but also our people.

This is precisely why I believe now, more than ever, that virtual exchange is one of the most powerful tools we have to overcome these issues and step forward in a better way. To borrow the words from Celeste Mergens, founder and CEO of Days for Girls International, virtual exchange is what will enable us to keep coming together, apart.

Further describing this pandemic as a portal in an April essay for the Financial Times, author Arundhati Roy wrote:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

With this sentiment, I could not agree more. I see this pandemic — global in scope and unprecedented in nature — as a defining moment in time. It is a chance for us humans to stand grounded in the present moment, as we reflect on our storied past — what actions, beliefs, and values have and have not served us well? — and begin to chart the course for a better future.

So, let’s take a deeper look, together, as we reflect on what we are witnessing, what we are learning, and exactly why virtual exchange has the potential to help us step on through to the other side.

The social inequality feedback loop

Not only is the global COVID-19 pandemic unearthing the world’s longstanding and widespread socio-economic divisions, but the virus is also strengthening these divisions, which in turn, is making the pathogen even deadlier. As reported by Max Fisher and Emma Bubola for The New York Times, this self-reinforcing cycle, also known as the social inequality feedback loop, has appeared and reappeared in epidemics throughout human history.

Across the globe, populations who reside in the lower economic strata — the social have-nots — are likelier to catch the disease, likelier to die from it, and likelier to suffer from a loss of income and health care as a result of quarantine measures. This is a prime example of the socio-economic marginalization that persists for Pan-African communities, indigenous communities, and other racial and ethnic minority groups across the world.

The hitch is, of course, that diseases don’t respect socio-economic barriers. And as this pandemic has proven, they don’t respect geographic ones either. Poverty and inequality can exacerbate the rates of transmission and mortality for everyone.

In places like the U.S., China, and India — our global economic powerhouses — daily wage laborers are receiving little-to-no social services or relief support from their governments. At the same time, the decline of labor unions and the rise of part-time work means that low-income workers have fewer protections on the whole. As a result, taxi drivers, factory workers, and sanitation crews are having to choose between showing up for high-risk, high-contact jobs and not being able to put food on the table for their families. Most are defaulting to the former.

Adding insult to injury, these vulnerable populations are also the most likely to be unable to afford care or treatment when they do get sick.

As covered by Times reporters, in a report published by the Kaiser Family Foundation last year, one in four Americans said that someone in their family had skipped a doctor-recommended test they couldn’t afford. What’s more, a 2010 study conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that similar conditions may have severely elongated the H1N1 epidemic in the United States, which killed 12,469 Americans in 2009 and 2010. Three in 10 workers with H1N1 symptoms continued going to work during that outbreak — a behavior which, according to researchers, drove 27 percent of all infections. And in 2014, the Center for Disease Control and Protection released a report, which found that “one in five food service employees went to work while sick with vomiting or diarrhea for fear of losing their jobs if they stayed home” — ultimately “turning restaurants into vectors for Norovirus outbreaks.”

Dr. Nicole A. Errett, a public health expert who co-directs the Collaborative on Extreme Event Resilience (CEER) research lab at the University of Washington, explained to the Times that because communities tend to cluster by economic status, the people who are both at the greatest risk of infection and most likely to suffer from the virus typically live within close proximity to each other — multiplying the risk for the community at-large.

“‘First, we had the coronavirus, which is wiping us out,’” Yvonne Passmore, a 65 year-old African American resident of South Minneapolis, recently told Washington Post reporters.

“‘And now, it’s this,’” Passmore continued, as she reflected on the damage that was brought to her Lake Street community with the violent protests of the revived Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in late May.*

“‘Many of the folks who live in these communities, because of the nature of their work, they have to go out and expose themselves to covid, risk themselves for wages that barely make ends meet,’” Eddie Glaude Jr., chair of the African American studies department at Princeton University, told Post reporters.

“‘Covid is devastating our communities, and people are wound so tight because it seems like the country doesn’t care. It seems as if there’s a general disregard for what’s happening in [B]lack America,’” Glaude added.

When societies naturally cluster into their respective socio-economic bubbles, it continues to be all too easy for the haves to ignore the perpetual plight of the have-nots. The twisted irony in all of this is, of course, is the stark fact that it only takes one carrier to facilitate an inter-community spread of pandemic proportions.

Take for example, the harrowing story of New York City, where 10,000 deaths, spread across all five boroughs, occurred just one month after the city’s first reported COVID-19 fatality. Or Delhi, India — one of the world’s most economically polarized cities — where slums served as unprecedented accelerants for a city-wide influenza outbreak in 2015.

According to the United Nations, the global number of slum residents is more than 1 billion, which is over one-third of the world’s urban population and a seventh of all humanity. This number is estimated to double to about 2 billion by 2030. Hence, it should come as no surprise that understanding and improving the health and lives of slum dwellers — the global have-nots — has been identified as one of the most pressing developmental challenges of the 21st century.

As Dr. Erret told the Times, “‘these things are so interconnected… Public health isn’t just about your own personal health, it’s about the health of the public at large… If there’s one person who can’t get treatment, that person is posing a risk to everyone.’”

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*In response to onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Helping Overcome Obstacles Peru (HOOP) made a rapid shift from educational to humanitarian activities. The organization’s #LaCanastaSolidaria (#TheSolidariyBasket) initiative is helping to relieve immediate hunger and stress amongst families in Arequipa’s rural Flora Tristán community. Readers can learn more about HOOP’s new initiatives and offer support here.

Reach the World also acted and adapted quickly, in order to support students, educators, and parents in this new era of at-home learning. Now, by visiting https://athome.reachtheworld.org/, parents, educators, and students can access free professional development workshops, virtual learning lesson plans, join an open virtual exchange journey, go on a virtual expedition, and more. Donations to support the New York-based nonprofit organization can be made here.

*Donations may be made to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) here. Through litigation, advocacy, and public education, LDF seeks structural changes to expand democracy, eliminate disparities, and achieve racial justice in a society that fulfills the promise of equality for all Americans.

Abigail Faires (@abbyfaires_lnks) is a freelance writer, international educator, and the co-founder of Learn2Link: a global learning network that inspires youth-led community development and emerging 501(c)(3) organization.