Before entering academia or the study of social work my background was in disaster engineering and humanitarian response.
Recently I have delivered a number of talks in which I present a conceptual framework for understanding why COVID affects different communities, differently. In my conceptual framework I combine my understanding of various disaster theories, with my understanding of power, inequality and race.
I have created this blog as I have repeatedly been asked for something to reference (whilst I have utilized this model over several years, I have never formally published my work). Please reference this work as
Adelaine, A (2020) Adelaine’s Conceptual Framework for Understanding, Disasters, Inequality & COVID. Ladders4Action: Weston-Super-Mare. Available from: https://ladders4action.org/news-blogs-videos/blog/adelaines-conceptual-framework/
COVID-19 can be considered as a hazard, it is something that has the potential to harm lives and communities. Many coronaviruses exist within animal populations, they only cause harm when human they jump from animal to human communities. It is only when a significant number of humans have been exposed to the virus that there is the potential for an emergency or disaster to occur.
Learning from previous emergencies and disasters it is understood that the same exposure to the same hazard can still result in different impacts. For example, on Jan 10th 2010 an earthquake hit Port-au-Prince in Haiti. Measuring 7.0 on the rictor scale it resulted in the deaths of approximately 300,000 people. In the same year, an earthquake measuring 8.8 killed 525 individuals in Chile. Seven years earlier, an earthquake measuring 8.3 in Japan did not result in any fatalities.
To understand the differential impact and why some hazards turn into disasters and some do not, we must understand examine differences in context, communities and individuals. In particular, we need to understand differences in exposure, vulnerability and resilience
One factor which might explain why some individuals appear to be disproportionally affected by COVID-19 is related to hazard exposure. It is evident that due to the nature of their work; housing & environmental conditions; access and use of transport; or disproportional representation in high density prisons and detention centres some individuals at greater risk of coming into contact with the virus than others.
We know that overall impact of a hazard differs when there is greater vulnerability and the potential for harm. For example, buildings are vulnerable to earthquakes when they are poorly constructed or overcrowded, bodies are vulnerable to COVID-19 when there are underlying health conditions.
It has been proposed that known disparities in health, illness and prevalence rates of specific underlying conditions might explain why Black Asian & Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities might be more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.
However, understanding why health disparities exist is extremely complex. Gómez (2013) is among several individuals who highlight the importance of understanding the social determinants of health. She states that when considering health inequality and differences in health outcomes between racial groups there is a temptation to attribute health differences to solely genetic factors rather than giving consideration to the nuanced and complex way in which social factors affect health outcomes.
Impact is also affected by resilience. The ability to absorb the shocks and stresses is affected by how prepared and/or well-resourced an individual, community or country is. An individual, community or country can enhance its resilience (its capacity to limit impact and bounces back quickly) by thinking ahead and learning from the past and understanding the factors which affect exposure, vulnerability and resilience. It is argued that vulnerability should never be considered without a parallel reflection of resilience. In regard to the COVID pandemic there has been a high level of focus upon BAME communities and the vulnerabilities they face. However, less discussion has centred upon the actions BAME communities have undertaken in response to COVID and the manner in which BAME communities (through their disproportionate contribution to essential work and health services) have contributed to the nation’s resilience.
Repeatedly, research highlights that the overall impact of an emergency and disaster is affected by inequality. Because inequality typically increases vulnerability and reduces resilience, impact is almost always disproportional. Emergencies and disasters, expose existing inequalities.
The tragic reality that inequality kills, is just one part of understanding the connection. Disasters and emergencies feed on inequality, but they also amplify and escalate inequality. There is a negative feedback loop. You will be more affected if you are marginalized / if you face inequality; but the differential impact will also make you more marginalized, more vulnerable and less resilient to future hazards.
Gómez, L. (2013). “Introduction: Taking the social construction of race seriously in health disparities research.” Mapping “race”: Critical approaches to health disparities research: 1-22.