I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and reached through the darkness for my phone. It was 4 a.m. on a March 2020 morning, and the screams coming from outside my apartment were making it impossible to sleep. I sat up and looked down from my second-story window to the thin road below. Bathed in the orange light of a street lamp a group of people were dancing in a circle, their maniacal laughs and screams echoing up and down the otherwise silent street. While this alone wouldn’t have made it a notable event on the famously raucous Greenwood Avenue, the fact that this group of dancers was wearing nothing but their smiles was a little too crazy even for this party-street. But I was hardly surprised.
Ann Arbor had been abuzz with massive parties for days on end. After a student tested positive for COVID-19 and classes were canceled, many rushed to party with their friends and enjoy one final week of college life before returning home. Despite the University and public health experts telling us to remain in our dorms and apartments, on every block, from sunup to sundown, a party seemed to rage. Adding to the danger of the situation, University students had just returned from spring break a week earlier, likely bringing more than just souvenirs and wicked hangovers back to Michigan.
A few weeks after witnessing this naked dance party in the middle of my street, Michigan, particularly Detroit, had already gained the unwanted designation as a dreaded COVID-19 “hotspot.” Unlike most other American metropolises, citizens of the Motor City and other communities throughout southeast Michigan were uniquely vulnerable to this new respiratory disease. Like it had done in New Orleans a few weeks prior, the coronavirus took advantage of the states’ glaring legacies of racial and environmental injustice. While many nursing and senior living facilities were devastated by the disease, communities of color throughout southern Michigan were hit even harder. Of the 1,000,000 Black Michiganders tested for COVID-19, an average of over 16,000 test positive. For white people, the positivity rate per million is only a fraction of this, at less than 6,000. Michiganders of color, as a consequence of generations of environmental racism, also find themselves significantly more likely to succumb to the disease.
Heavily polluting industries, like the Marathon Oil refinery and trash burning facilities, have been allowed to nestle their ways into minority communities and dirty the air with government approval for decades. Filling the workplaces, hospitals and homes of Detroiters with stinking, chemical-filled air — unfit to breathe by anyone’s standards — has resulted in higher rates of chronic asthma. This pollution, paired with limited access to green areas, healthy foods and exercise facilities, is linked to other health problems later in life, like obesity and diabetes, which Black Michiganders also have higher rates of compared to white Michiganders. The prevalence of such preexisting medical conditions in these communities has had devastating effects during the pandemic.
Black Michiganders, despite making up less than 14.5 percent of the state’s population, constitute nearly half of the total death count from COVID-19 and are four times more likely than individuals of other demographics to succumb to the virus. While the pandemic has shined an intense and tragic light on the effects of environmental injustice, public health officials have long been aware of them. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that he hopes the pandemic will be the wake-up call for the United States to narrow these inequalities. “We will get over Coronavirus, but there will still be health disparities, which we really do need to address in the African American community,” Fauci said.
The University of Michigan’s Michigan Medicine, one of the most prestigious health institutions in the world, could play an essential role in this mission. With University President Mark Schlissel himself a renowned immunologist, I at least expected our University to acknowledge the fact that our nation is not ready for in-person classes to resume. My street alone is littered with broken bottles, destroyed furniture, beer cans and red solo cups from the countless parties I saw there in just a two-day visit. The University could have chosen to be the role model on how to safely and innovatively adapt to yet another surmountable challenge in its 203-year history. Instead, the school has chosen to endanger the very Michiganders it was founded to serve.
With the pandemic still increasing in intensity in many parts of the country, the responsible move would be to make classes fully remote, encourage students to stay at home and avoid a highly predictable public health disaster. With students at many universities calling for tuition cuts for online classes, and some even suing their schools, the University has instead bucked common sense and morality and has let greed become its guide. In the attitude of the multi-billion dollar corporation it often resembles, the University has chosen to ignore the health of Michiganders for money. Even worse, the effects of this dangerous choice will be felt disproportionately by Black communities. In wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, and with Michigan State University moving all classes online two weeks ago, the fact the University is trying to feign ignorance that this choice will put thousands of Black lives at risk is inexcusable.
By beckoning students back to Ann Arbor with this “hybrid semester,” the most brilliant minds in Michigan are tempting an explosion of coronavirus cases. With a massive student body, the Black communities of not only Ann Arbor and neighboring cities are at risk but all of southern Michigan. While it is impossible to say if Michigan students will resist the partying and irresponsible behavior that they fell prey to at the beginning of the pandemic, it’s difficult for me to get those glistening buttcheeks from March out of my head.
Riley Dehr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.