With the current COVID-19 public health crisis, it’s become particularly clear that the pandemic reaches beyond being just a highly contagious, viral disease or issue of community spread. The coronavirus pandemic effectively stratified the population into its different social identities and personalities based on the impact on specific communities. While the United States may be a melting pot, the virus has made evident these pre-existing divisions within a community.

These “new” categories or groups make us aware of identities and statuses we may not have considered within the standard set of “social identities.” We tend to consider communities based on where someone is living. Especially for millennials, the COVID-19 public health crisis is an incredible teaching moment. The current state of the world shows us the ways in which disease and illness impact us disproportionately. Typically when discussing social identities, there’s the standard “social identity wheel.” This circle includes 11 sectors: ethnicity, race, religious or spiritual affiliation, age, physical, emotional, developmental ability, first language, national origin, sexual orientation, sex, gender and socioeconomic status. It’s easy to view identities as rigid categories when it’s important to instead shift and look at identities as a spectrum. 

Alongside the 11 identities listed, COVID-19 proved that occupation, encompassing job security and income, is an identity that is affected unequally. Additionally, whether or not you are essential personnel or a non-essential worker is another division brought to light due to COVID-19. These are examples of identity that, while associated with the socioeconomic part of the social identity wheel, aren’t always visible to the eye and therefore aren’t taken into account on a daily basis.

Another example within a global context reported by the Center for Strategic and International Studies is “The Impact of COVID-19 on Humanitarian Crises.” Due to travel restrictions, refugee resettlement programs are temporarily halted. Additionally, migrants and refugees are often in living situations that do not allow for social distancing to flatten the curve. Personally, immigration status is an identity that, as a U.S. citizen, I do not think about often. This is a privilege because, in this day and age, immigration status determines the level of public health care you’re able to receive.

Even on our campus, being a local business owner in Ann Arbor is particularly difficult right now because most of the campus community has gone home, and the people that are still in Ann Arbor are mostly staying at home. This means that the usual customers aren’t coming in and the unfortunate reality is that rent is still due on the first of the month. For example, welcoming spaces like aUM Yoga or MVMT which many University students frequently attend, are completely shut down. However, both studios are creating videos to make content virtually accessible to all. For those University students who are dependent on places like aUM or MVMT to prioritize both mental and physical wellness must seek this in new forms. There are local farms and produce-growers across the country within the agricultural industry offering contact-free curbside delivery of items that may no longer be available in big brand grocery stores. However, farm owners are still struggling to find innovative ways to sell their crops and produce revenue during this uncertain time. 

Additionally, this is a terrifying time for health care professionals fighting on the front lines against COVID-19. Now more than ever, the world is depending on health care professionals to be superheroes. There are doctors living in tents in their garages to prevent spreading the virus to their family members. There are pregnant ER doctors who risked not just their health but the health of their child in order to care for their patients with COVID-19. Furthermore, with the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) available, it is time to re-evaluate reality — there is not enough support for our health care professionals.

Take this time to learn about how this pandemic affects different identities and what you can do to help. Look around you and take note of the widespread impacts that stretch far beyond the symptoms of cough, fever and shortness of breath. Practice being mindful of all identities and groups; we are more than whats found within the social identity wheel. Start making a list of all the efforts being made to help health care workers and those affected by COVID-19. When we’re able to return to new normalcy, let’s return the support to these organizations and institute preventative measures to protect small businesses and health care professionals in the future.

To my fellow graduating seniors, no matter how heartbreaking it may be to end four years on such an uncertain note, let’s take this as a hands-on opportunity in whatever field or line of study you’re pursuing post-graduation to learn how to improve the current systems in place. If you’re pursuing health care or medicine, this is the time to start thinking about how we can better deliver health care to all affected groups and identities. If you’re pursuing business, this is the time to find creative ways to fund small businesses before entering times of economic decline? In times of emergencies like these, it’s up to us to apply our University of Michigan educations to find ways to bridge these divisions.

Varna Kodoth can be reached at vkodoth@umich.edu.

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