What Justice, Equity and Compassion Could Look Like in Our Pandemic Response

Melissa Jenkins is a third-year doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work.  Her research interests include trauma-informed interventions and sex trafficking prevention for youth with developmental disabilities.  

“It was pretty apparent in opening the doors at the Friday Center that the patients that were being seen were not representative of the community in terms of race and ethnicity.” 

Ironically, the article in which this quote appears was published an hour after I received the Johnson and Johnson vaccine at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill, NC. Typically crowded with working professionals looking for continuing education opportunities, this 25,000 square-foot conference center transformed into a vaccination site back in January. In reading this news, I was more distressed by the hundreds of Triangle residents traveling over 80 miles to Kinston, NC, whose local residents made up only 10% of first-week vaccination appointments at UNC Lenoir Health Care hospital. Given that the majority of the Kinston population is Black (66.2%), and over a quarter (27.8%) live in poverty, the disparity in vaccine distribution (or rather vaccine acquisition) is obvious.  

North Carolina is not alone in regard to macro-level efforts by state governments to increase access to vaccines, subverted by micro-level actions by individuals. This is just one example in a larger conversation around health equity that predates the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the ability to reconcile these growing health disparities with a broader push for mass vaccination has been challenging. 

As a graduate student, I took note of the plentiful updates from my university that reaffirmed where college students ranked in terms of vaccination priority. I certainly wasn’t prepared to receive an email from my department stating that faculty members would be eligible for reserving a vaccination appointment earlier than anticipated. As this semester happened to be one in which I’ve been teaching as an adjunct instructor, I became acutely aware that my opportunity of receiving a vaccine was precipitated by my temporary work status. It was a relief to see a higher-ranking faculty member question in the email announcement what this meant for us teaching remotely and, therefore, at lower risk of becoming infected. The department head’s response: we should anticipate an imminent return to an in-person work setting and get the vaccine as soon as possible. Upon reading this advice, I felt mostly justified to begin a search of available vaccine appointments. At the same time, I was uncomfortable with the fact that my “imminent return” to campus (and public life) would be much further out than others, especially those who have less of a choice.  

As a Unitarian Universalist, the hesitancy I’ve been experiencing has been reassured by our spiritual tradition’s second principle: justice, equity and compassion in human relations. At times, the collective responsibility for broader society inferred by this guidance may feel contradictory by what appears as selfish actions. While the decision to travel over 90 minutes to secure a vaccination in a comparatively resource-less town is a clear demonstration of systemic inequality, it is plausible that someone in this crowd was heeding the call for mass vaccination as a way to build herd immunity. Although we may never know the intentions of one’s motivation to claim a spot in line, altruism and individual deservingness will continue to be the focus of the pandemic response unless we grapple with the factors that enable health inequities to persist.  

As a Black woman, it’s been encouraging to see Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett at the forefront of this fight, especially in her outreach to communities of color who have historically been harmed by unethical experiments conducted by scientists and medical professionals. When Dr. Corbett speaks to UNC-Chapel Hill’s senior class this spring, my hope is that her words will inspire graduates to carefully consider how their respective actions in the upcoming months and years to come will simultaneously show justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. 

 

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.