‘America Is Burning’ and It’s Up to Us to Put Out the Flames

The newscaster-turned-film producer and a leading epidemiologist write about the state of America and why, due to an absence of leadership, the people need to forge a path forward.

This week, Soledad O’Brien releases the documentary Outbreak: The First Response—a look at how public health cared for its most vulnerable in the place where COVID-19 first arrived in the U.S. The documentary airs on Hearst Television’s NBC and CBS stations at 8 p.m. on Friday, and on Hearst Television’s ABC stations on Wednesday at 8 p.m. 

America is burning. Or, more correctly, America has been burning. It’s just gotten harder to ignore. Long before Americans had even heard of COVID-19, homelessness was a major national problem; the federal minimum wage hadn’t increased in a decade; approximately half of all Americans reported living paycheck to paycheck; paid sick leave was unavailable to about one-fifth of our nation’s workforce; and income inequality had reached a five-decade high.

Infectious diseases are typically an egalitarian leveler among society; equally impacting broad cross-sections of our communities. COVID-19 has proven different. Black people, people of color, and those experiencing poverty bear a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 mortality. The virus is an equal-opportunity infector but has found itself in an unequal environment. These vulnerable populations experience greater rates of underlying, chronic conditions; have greater exposure to poor air quality; are more likely to live in crowded and congregate housing; and are disproportionately represented in essential (or maybe expendable) frontline jobs not easily done from home. This confluence of circumstances, which were pre-pandemic realities, created the conditions for the perfect storm we find ourselves in now.

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