Letter from our Faculty Director

The impacts of the coronavirus on America’s most vulnerable communities

Richard Matthew, UCI Blum Center Faculty Director

22 years ago, I wrote an article with a colleague from Georgetown University entitled “Sex, Drugs and Heavy Metal: Transnational Threats and National Vulnerabilities.” It was published in the journal Security Dialogue.


In it we argued:

The increasing degree and rate of human mobility throughout history has created an opportunity for infectious disease to spread with devastating consequences. The plagues that swept across medieval Europe, the smallpox carried to the Americas by the Spanish, and the cholera, malaria and AIDS that wreak havoc today testify to the enormous impact infectious disease can have on a vulnerable society. Today, drug resistant viruses and new pathogens uncovered as people carve their way into rainforests can be transported unintentionally across the globe in hours. The ingredients for an epidemic–including infected livestock and foodstuffs, poor hygiene, inadequate sanitation systems, drug resistant pathogens, and rapid and extensive human contact–are largely in place for a transnational catastrophe. Despite widespread recognition of these problems, recent national responses to two of the world’s deadliest diseases demonstrate how state-centric policies tend to inhibit appropriate preparations and responses.

We concluded that:

The state, which evolved to provide security from both domestic and external threats, is being constrained by its historical legacy as it struggles to respond to transnational security issues. We must be prepared to vanquish the next Nazi Germany, but we must also be prepared to confront the Ebola virus, mass migration, weapons proliferation, drugs, and terrorism. As new technologies unsettle traditional patterns of behavior, we must find new ways of providing for security. The challenge ahead is to adapt the state to this new environment, and devise transnational structures competent to address transnational threats.

We argued for extensive global cooperation, for including new perspectives and expertise in our security thinking, and for developing institutions fully dedicated to understanding and responding to disease pandemics and similar threats.

We were certainly not alone in arguing that the United States was failing to address transnational threats posed by infectious disease, environmental change and terrorism. We were part of a noisy community of rather pessimistic researchers whose views have (too) often been ignored. Our concerns, however, have received considerable support from real world events—including 9/11, the worst droughts, floods and fires in our history, the largest forced displacements of people since World War II, and, now, the novel coronavirus. It is sad and frustrating that some of the steps taken to realign national security with the realities of the post-Cold War era, and to build architecture around a vision of human security focused on the rights and dignity of all Americans, and of people around the world with whom we are deeply interconnected, were pushed back in ways that place ideology above science. We have been left less prepared than we could have been.

Less prepared to anticipate and respond to transnational threats, and less prepared to address another empirical reality that the dire events of the past two decades have brought into focus. Simply put: while everyone in our society suffers during these types of crisis, the poorest members of our society suffer more than everyone else. And in many ways their suffering lasts much longer.

The 78% of our population, according to a 2017 CareerBuilder report, living pay check to pay check; the 40% of our population unable, according to a 2018 Federal Reserve study, to pull together $400 in an emergency; the 40 million Americans currently living below the poverty line—these people are far more likely to be displaced from housing they can just afford towards housing they really cannot afford. They are more likely to lose their jobs or take pay cuts. They are more likely to face crushing unexpected bills—and be unable to pay them—and have their credit ratings plummet as a result. More likely to lose their cars. More likely to have their education interrupted. More likely not to have insurance policies in place that protect them. More likely to become even more vulnerable to subsequent shocks—like a recession. More likely to find themselves in desperate need of assistance. And more likely to be neglected, and to enter a downward spiral that might entrap them permanently.

Our moral beliefs are clear: those with capacity have a responsibility to assist those in need. And the imperatives of prudential behavior are also clear: the welfare and safety of all are diminished when we fail to act to alleviate forms of poverty and inequality that generate despair, deepen distrust and increase volatility in our political and economic systems.

The novel coronavirus has and will continue to hurt many people in this country, and insofar as everyone is at some risk, it will do so free from “discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” But over time it will almost certainly play out very differently in the two halves that make up America, because one half is simply far more resilient than the other. We cannot erase inequality, but we can reduce its most dangerous forms. The differential impacts of the coronavirus can be mitigated dramatically through inclusive policies, contextually sensitive interventions, targeted and adequate financial assistance, and acts of kindness and compassion. The skills and knowledge needed in this regard are the backbone of the educational programs we have designed to prepare the next generation of leaders for California, the US, the planet.

We also have created a new web page dedicated to reporting on the impacts of the coronavirus on America’s most vulnerable communities. We invite you to contribute—your views, stories, compelling visuals, evidence-based studies, and to help us identify resources that are available to those in need.

Richard Matthew is the faculty director of UC Irvine’s Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation, associate dean of research and international programs for UCI’s School of Social Ecology and professor of urban planning and public policy.