To be honest, I did not want to write about COVID. In August, I was excited about the beginning of a new semester. With the forthcoming academic year, I could focus some of the energy I had spent reading about the pandemic and refocus my energy on my dissertation and upcoming foray into this strange, strange job market. I truly gave myself a break this summer, working on very minute details in two chapters of my dissertation. Fresh off the weirdest end of a semester to date, it made sense to push my research aside to focus full-time on bearing witness to one the largest-scale tragedies in history, and then I remembered what it was I research.
I primarily focus on the rhetorics of health and medicine and the ways cultural rhetorics can help us understand the culturally varied and complex ways minoritized communities navigate the healthcare system in the United States. My previous CHI project, Mapping the Young Lords, used publically available health data in New York City to examine how community resistance through specific writing practices resulted in material change that helped better public health outcomes. When I think about this project now, some of the limitations of my analysis are especially striking at this specific moment in time. While I argued that access to healthcare facilities such as walk-in clinics are indicators of good public health, I did not think about what it would mean to be without access to any facility except for treatment. The effects of redlining are still felt today, as explained by David R. Williams and Lisa A. Cooper in their article “COVID-19 and Health Equity– A New Kind of Herd Immunity”, in that the location of a person’s residence has effects on their health. Additionally, FiveThirtyEight found that Black and Hispanic people are more likely to experience subpar testing, with longer wait times and understaffed testing centers. This is saying nothing of the reality that many Black and Brown workers constitute the “essential” workforce, raising their risk of infection. As a rhetorician, the data tells me that despite the increase in clinics and access to testing and clinics, the harmful effects of systemic racism are about as clear as ever.
Nothing I’ve said here or observed in my research is groundbreaking. If anything, it recalibrates the mission of data analysts and those of us in the digital humanities. The mission to expand engagement with varied modes of cultural production and intellectual engagement remains the same. Providing and interpreting data is a public good, and we should work toward this increase of public access as to provide transparency and to be truly community-engaged.
While numbers don’t lie, they certainly do tell us a story. Hopefully, we can work toward creating a better ending.