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Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Keeping the Promise: DEI Principles Needed Now More than Ever

Once we recognize the role that bias, exclusion and inequity played in the spread of COVID-19, it becomes clear why DEI principles must be upheld, especially at a time of crisis. Rhae-Ann Booker, PhD, UM Health-West’s Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, explains why it’s important to stick to this important and complex work. The disparities that already existed made the effects of the pandemic worse than they had to be.

In any crisis, it can be convenient to withdraw from the complex work of diversity, equity and inclusion. This is when DEI values are needed most.

Stark Health Inequities

Race, gender, socio-economic status and sexual orientation – all are common factors that determine risk in any health crisis. The pandemic has exposed shocking disparities in infection and fatality rates, many of them systemic. Racism itself can be a social determinant of health, often influencing where someone lives – the quality of the air they breathe, the food they eat, water they drink. It’s also a factor in whether someone has opportunities in education and income.

Who Gets Left Behind?

Even in the best of times, economic disparities are closely linked to health disparities. COVID-19 makes this painfully clear. Lower-income workers are more likely to be in jobs that put them at risk – or in no position to stay home when they feel sick. The pandemic has widened divides based on privilege. Some have jobs that will adapt to remote work, while others do not. Some rely on public transportation, while others do not. Some will see their jobs return when the recovery begins, others will not.

A Focus on Equity

The coronavirus has been cutting a swath through our communities, our staff, our organizations. It is human nature in such a situation for our first response to be “just treat everyone the same.” The response we really need is to “treat everyone equitably.” Focusing on equity takes a little more effort. But it helps us focus on the end result, ensuring everyone has the same opportunity to be well and thrive.

Fear Itself

Throughout history, people have blamed “others” for illness. We are seeing the same in xenophobic attacks linked to the coronavirus. And yet fear and anger are counterproductive to our efforts to control COVID-19. The good news is that we’re not born with hatred toward other groups. These attitudes are learned – and they can be unlearned. Organizations that support DEI principles will not tolerate hostility or distrust toward any group.

An All-Access Future?

Just as COVID-19 exposed differences we may not have contemplated before, it has changed the way we interact with one another. As we move toward what is likely to be a more tele-connected future, it is essential that all groups, languages and abilities are included. Translator services will need to be easily accessible. Accommodations must be made for all sight, hearing and cognitive abilities. And alternatives must be considered for constituents who lack high-speed connectivity.