The social costs of the COVID-19 pandemic are not limited to the disease, but also include the ideologically driven response to it. At every level of government, politically motivated school closures cost children years of education, while forced closures of businesses increased poverty and economic dislocation. In Los Angeles, where public health is a political decision, the “science” of containing the virus has its roots in “woke” ideas of race and “intersectionality” that are increasingly prevalent in the healthcare field.
When California governor Gavin Newsom issued a “stay at home order”—limiting the lives and rights of those in the Golden State to the confines of their homes and restricting students to remote learning—it was the first state in the Union to go into lockdown. The City of Los Angeles beat Newsom to the punch, having locked down before the rest of the state. LA’s approach to the COVID-19 crisis was guided as much by critical theory as by health.
In 2017, before the pandemic, LA County established a “Center for Health Equity” (CHE) in order to “advance racial, social, economic, and environmental justice” within the county. In 2018, the CHE’s five-year plan stipulated the policy aims of increasing government contract awards based on race, implementing “implicit bias” trainings for health workers, and implementing “institutional transformation” to embed a “health equity lens into everyday work and operations.” Notably, the CHE emerged in conjunction with LA County’s hiring of Dr. Barbara Ferrer as the director of the county’s Department of Public Health. Far from coincidental or innocuous, Ferrer’s background in “intersectionality”—the social theories that view all human interactions through Marxist matrices of oppression and identity—came to guide LA’s handling of COVID-19.
Before becoming LA County’s key policymaker responding to the pandemic, Ferrer’s professional career began when she worked as an activist “community organizer” prior to obtaining a doctorate in “social welfare” from Brandeis University. Ferrer is not a medical doctor, and her research as an academic includes publications with woke titles such as “Racial Inequities in Drug Arrests,” “Immigrant Health,” “Building Health Equity,” and “Efforts to Undo Racism.” Ironically, due to her focusing LA’s COVID response on achieving social outcomes rather than defeating disease, Ferrer’s professionalization in intersectionality hurt the very same minority communities she sought to help.
[Related: “Reflections on the Tyranny of Campus COVID Restrictions”]
During school closures in the LA Unified School District, black and Latino students suffered a 26% learning gap compared to their white and Asian counterparts. Overall grades among all student demographics declined during the pandemic. In all, 200,000 LA students failed to meet reading and math standards due to remote learning and school shutdowns. Ferrer’s woke agenda of malpractice in public policy is all the more egregious given that she explicitly acknowledged the risks facing LA’s schoolkids in the event of school closures. At the outset of LA’s lockdowns in March 2020, Ferrer stated that:
You have parents with very limited incomes who don’t get sick leaves at their jobs or are often working multiple jobs. They can’t actually at this point put their child in a daycare setting when the school closes. So if there’s a way to keep schools open safely, our recommendation is that we give it a really good try.
Despite the open acknowledgement of the damage the school closures would cause, including for the populations that served as the center of Ferrer’s focus, the politically driven nature of her policies came into full view when she later stated that K–12 schools would not reopen “until after the election” of 2020. The election’s passing did not resolve the reopening problem over the coming months, even as parents protested and medical professionals criticized the lack of hard science behind Ferrer’s mandates. Ferrer arguably knew the damage that her policies would cause, but pursued them anyway.
While the catastrophe of LA’s COVID response is well known and the aftereffects of its pandemic policies continue to be felt, less well-known are the ideological roots of LA’s public health approach to containing the virus. Much greater than the machinations of Barbara Ferrer as a single unelected policymaker, LA’s pandemic response derives from the growing influence of woke studies and identity politics in healthcare fields.
Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, where Ferrer received her doctorate, states as its motto “Knowledge Advancing Social Justice.” The Heller School offers four concentrations for its graduate students, with social justice at the forefront of all of them. Heller’s “Economic and Racial Equity” concentration centers on how health outcomes are shaped by “current social and economic inequalities” and offers students direction from their “Institute for Economic and Racial Equity” (IERE). IERE describes itself as “grounded in the social justice tradition” and claims that its work “informs strategic action for racial and economic justice to achieve an inclusive, equitable society.” Heller’s seemingly more straightforward “Health” concentration similarly carries the heavy social justice emphasis by focusing on “racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities” and “health care and its role in social change.”
[Related: “CDC Lowers Expectations for Child Development, Raising New Questions for Parents”]
From the standpoint of achieving social change, Ferrer and the woke health policies that shaped her academic training achieved their desired result. Hundreds of thousands of LA students face potentially irreparable learning loss as the result of her COVID policies, with minority students in particular suffering a loss of human capital. Ironically, in studying socioeconomic disparity and seeking to reduce it, Ferrer and Los Angeles perpetuated the social injustice they aim to combat.
Due to Ferrer and LA’s COVID policies, minority Angelenos fared little better economically than the schoolchildren who lost years of learning. Just as LA students fell behind in school, businesses lost income and laid off workers due to government intrusion and micromanagement. The Democrat efforts to force “vaccine equity” on Angelenos of color betrayed the very paternalism toward minorities that progressives seek to eradicate from government.
Vaccine rates among LA residents varied drastically at the height of the pandemic, with Asian and white Angelenos receiving vaccines more readily than blacks and Latinos. Among all demographics with age ranges included, black seniors had the lowest vaccination rates of all. In August 2020, California implemented race-based policies that swapped examination of overall case rates for the virus with one focused on “equity.” Equity-driven vaccinations even went so far as to prioritize vaccines based on ZIP codes and race. Ferrer supported the move, noting that LA could use racial metrics to “focus on the disproportionality” and achieve equity before lifting COVID lockdown restrictions.
The consequences of Ferrer’s racialized policy approach were not limited to wonkish studies of woke theory—they also spelled disaster for LA businesses and the economic standing of minorities. Minority businesses suffered the most during the pandemic due to COVID restrictions, with the number of black and Latino businessowners collapsing by 41% and 32% respectively. LA lost more businesses than most other American locales, losing a total of 15,000 businesses during the pandemic due to “stay at home orders.”
The irony behind Ferrer’s socially driven health policies is that lower vaccine rates among minorities stemmed in large part from greater mistrust of government among black and Latino populations. Both groups expressed deeper mistrust of the COVID-19 vaccine than their white counterparts. As for distrust of government, it is not difficult to see why minorities in LA would be suspicious of officials who shut down their businesses and intellectually hindered their children.
Thanks to elite academia and programs such as Barbara Ferrer’s alma mater at Brandeis, where emphases on identity politics in every discipline have replaced conceptions of natural rights, woke medicine is having the desired effect of socially changing society. Woke health education problematically adopted a philosophy of identity politics while disregarding classically natural rights of “life,” “liberty,” and “property.” Ferrer’s COVID response deprived minority Angelenos of all three.
Image: MIA Studio, Adobe Stock