Activists and experts discuss inequality issues highlighted by COVID-19

Photo of Rahwa Neguse, Ann C. Keller, Dr. Hector P. Rodríguez, James King, Axel Fuentes
Top, from left to right: Ann Keller, Axel Fuentes. Bottom, from left to right: Hector Rodriguez, James King, Rahwa Neguse.

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A panel of activists and experts discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted issues of inequality around topics such as working conditions for essential workers, prison overcrowding and public health inequalities in a livestream event Thursday.

The discussion, “COVID-19 and the Political Determinants of Health,” was part of a series of events from the UC Berkeley Othering and Belonging Institute centering around racial justice, which was created in response to George Floyd’s death, according to the website’s event page. Rahwa Neguse, executive director of Healthy Black Families Inc., moderated the discussion.

“I think it’s really, really important that moving forward we address conditions that leave behind people that are most vulnerable,” said Alein Haro, a panelist and doctoral student in the UC Berkeley Health Policy Ph.D. program, during the event.

Haro addressed the struggles of undocumented immigrants during the pandemic. She said they are not eligible for federal assistance such as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds, stimulus checks and unemployment insurance and wants to ensure they have a safety net.

Another panelist was Axel Fuentes, the executive director of the Rural Community Workers Alliance, who has organized for workers’ rights, especially in the meatpacking industry.

Fuentes said meat processing plant employees have little protection from COVID-19 and experience poor working conditions such as a lack of physical distancing and appropriate personal protective equipment. He added that masks are not enough to protect workers from the types of substances they are exposed to, including sweat, chemicals and blood.

James King, who fought for the early release of inmates in San Quentin State Prison due to the pandemic, also spoke on the panel about prison overcrowding.

The First District Court of Appeals released a decision this month that ordered half of the San Quentin inmate population to be transferred to safe facilities or released. King said although this gives the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation the choice to transfer inmates to another prison, all California prisons are still overcrowded

“We need physical distancing and reducing the occupancy rates at every prison,” King said during the event. “It’s a partial victory, but there’s still more work to be done.”

Campus associate professor of health politics and policy Ann Keller discussed the challenges associated with the distribution of a future COVID-19 vaccine.

According to Keller, communities of color do not trust medical institutions, which she said is “well-earned.”

“I think that we should be already beginning conversations around who’s developing the vaccine and how far along they are in the process, so that communities of color who are experiencing the worst parts of the pandemic understand whether the vaccine is something that they’re going to feel comfortable with,” Keller said during the event.

Contact Natalie Lu at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @natalie_c_lu.