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Social Equity, Social Justice, Research and the Pandemic

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nevbahar Ertas
December 5, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic magnified inequities and inequalities in structural determinants of health and exposed how uneven distribution of resources, opportunities and burdens intensify festering problems in times of crisis. In my first essay for PA Times, I summarized some of the themes public policy and administration (PPA) scholars have identified for a post-pandemic research agenda and in subsequent columns, I expanded on some of these themes; first the critical role of trust in government in times of crises such as a pandemic, second, concerns and questions regarding public servants the pandemic has thrown into the spotlight and third, intergovernmental relations (IGR) during and after the pandemic. This column focuses on a thread that connects all the themes: social equity and justice. We need critical PPA scholarship to understand, explain and address inequities and injustices in access to healthcare, education, housing, policing, childcare and similar public services. Research can also aid us in reimagining governance and public policy to advance social equity and justice.

 Inequities in Access to Vaccines and Healthcare

Vaccine equity, which refers to fair and just access to COVID-19 vaccination, emerged as an immediate domestic and international concern. As of June 2022, only about 30 percent or (58 of 194) of World Health Organization (WHO) member states had reached the 70 percent global vaccination coverage target set a year earlier. Consequently, COVID-19 mortality rates are significantly higher in lower-income countries, which tend to have lower rates of vaccine coverage. In the United States, 68 percent of the population is considered fully vaccinated, but vaccination coverage varies considerably by state and for specific population groups. The CDC points out disproportionate challenges faced by racial and ethnic minority populations, people living in rural areas, people experiencing homelessness, essential and frontline workers, people with disabilities, people with substance abuse disorders, incarcerated individuals and immigrants. According to a comparative 2022 JAMA article, while the 10 states with highest vaccination coverage were on par with other peer countries, “US continued to experience significantly higher COVID-19 and excess all-cause mortality compared with peer countries during 2021 and early 2022”. There is much retrospective and prospective research for PPA scholars to illustrate social, geographic, political, economic and environmental factors that create and exacerbate inequities. We need both empirical research and normative approaches to clarify social, geographic, political, economic and environmental factors that influence vaccination uptake, policy compliance and failures and successes in health and social infrastructure, so we can develop effective policies to address these gaps.

Larger inequities and injustices exposed by the Pandemic

Social inequity and injustice are big thematic challenges that demands attention from PPA scholars. Access to vaccines is one aspect of access to healthcare and larger social justice issues. The pandemic has raised numerous challenges regarding economic concerns, criminal justice, civil rights and human rights. For example, what have we learned about federal, state and local tax matters involving stimulus payments, targeted tax credits or tax cuts that may aid in reforming the tax systems to better serve Americans equitably? The COVID-19 pandemic has offered an opportunity to expand mail-in voting policies, but unfounded claims about fraud have also spread. How can we ensure access to voting for all and improve the stability of the election process in the immediate future and beyond? The summer of 2020 was marked by a movement of online and offline citizen activism calling for social change. How can we read, learn and integrate perspectives from marginalized communities? The pandemic has altered schooling and educational services, placing additional burdens on parents, teachers and students. What types of resources and policies do we need to support our educators and students in the future? How can we reverse disinvestment and marginalization in America? Which social policies do we need to adopt or expand to address inequities in childcare burdens, access to safe housing, food security and all forms of support systems?

Unlike local or regional crises, the pandemic was a global event, requiring a global response. How can we apply the lessons COVID-19 has taught us about the need for an effective global response to other such problems including climate change and the preservation of earth’s natural resources? Finally, turning inward, PPA scholars may reflect on the role that our fields have played in creating or preserving injustices. In a 2019 article Social Equity in Public Administration, Blesset and colleagues made the following call for action: 

. . . those who constitute the field—both practitioners and scholars—must engage in intentional, active and ethical efforts to serve and safeguard all people, especially the most vulnerable in our society. No longer can we engage in functional activities that do harm, nor can we passively stand on the sidelines. This is a defining moment that will reveal what we value.

This call is now more timely than ever in the wake of the pandemic. The work by PPA scholars addressing social equity challenges can make a difference where it is most needed.

Author: Nevbahar Ertas is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Her research focuses broadly on public service, and public administration and policy. Twitter: @NevbaharErtas

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