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Harvard Law School Hosts Panel on Social Repercussions of Covid-19

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Law professors and health experts explored how the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated social inequalities during Wednesday’s fourth installment of a Harvard Law School seminar series on the intersection of Covid-19 and the law.

The Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center — which promotes interdisciplinary scholarship in health law policy, biotechnology, and bioethics — hosted the event, which was moderated by Yale Law School senior research fellow Ryan P. Knox.

The virtual panel — titled “The Disparate Burdens of COVID-19” — brought together legal scholars including Berkeley Law professor Daniel A. Farber, Middlesex University senior lecturer Joelle Grogan, and Yale Law professor Judith Resnik. Amherst College political science professor Tess E. Wise also spoke at the event, in addition to two health experts — American Medical Association Chief Health Equity Officer Aletha Maybank and Erik J. Rodriquez, a biobehavioral epidemiologist at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

The six panelists discussed how societal disparities and structural forces — ranging from racial inequities to health policy regulation — contributed to the effects of the pandemic.

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Grogan said robust health care systems are vital for countries to respond effectively to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Countries with well-functioning health care systems, particularly where that health care system is considered sacrosanct in political culture,” Grogan said. “They’re inevitably in [a] better place to tackle major health crises than those with weak or dysfunctional health systems.”

Maybank and Rodriquez both spoke extensively about how the coronavirus crisis has worsened socioeconomic inequities.

Rodriquez noted certain minority groups are disproportionately suffering from the pandemic.

“More than 50 percent of cases and about 45 percent of mortality related to Covid-19 are among Latinas and Latinos, African Americans and Blacks, and American Indians and Alaskan Natives. Yet, these three groups only represent about 33 percent of the U.S. population,” he said. “So this disproportionate burden of Covid-19 on racial and ethnic minorities has persisted over the past year.”

The pandemic has also disproportionately hurt incarcerated people, according to Resnik, who addressed health issues in the prison system. The current health crisis has demonstrated how prisons — which densely pack inmates — are vulnerable to the spread of disease, Resnik said.

While several panelists focused on how Covid-19 has exacerbated inequality in society, Farber, the Berkeley professor, highlighted how the pandemic has provided an opportunity to slow the effects of climate change.

Farber presented data showing a decline in global emissions over the past year, which coincided with economic shutdowns put in place in response to Covid-19.

Farber said he hopes governments enact policies that bring about lasting change in a post-pandemic world. Describing the possibility of a “green recovery,” Farber advocated for environmentally-conscious infrastructure bills that would reduce long-term emissions. Farber suggested such investments could be incorporated into countries’ Covid-19 stimulus plans.

Farber said the Covid-19 pandemic will be far from the last time countries will need to cooperate in response to global crises.

“I’m confident that we will see some new, global systemic risks emerging that we’re not even thinking about today,” Farber said. “And we need to start thinking about institutions to deal with it.”

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