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Williams: Locally, nationally and globally, inequity imperils us all

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For some folks, inequity is a non-issue or a malady best left undiagnosed.  

Racism would disappear if only we stopped talking about it. Our nation's gaping wealth disparity would evaporate if people simply worked harder or smarter.  Unequal access to medical treatment is not nearly as dangerous as allowing "socialism" to encroach upon our health care system. 

Too many of us refuse to wear a mask or get vaccinated. One political party appears incapable of crafting a response to a deadly virus that doesn't inject yet another potentially lethal dose of politics into our national bloodstream in the name of personal freedom. 

"No man is an island," the poet John Donne wrote nearly four centuries ago. And yet here we are, today, on our separate islands, buffeted by the storm winds of a pandemic and threatened with eventual inundation as a result of global warming.  

We've allowed the vast majority of a continent to go unvaccinated in the midst of a global pandemic, creating a huge haven for the coronavirus to mutate into variants. We're tempting fate -- and a vaccine-resistant strain.

The toll of COVID-19 has become a metaphor for the indifference and outright contempt toward the oppressed, the impoverished and people of color. 

Our disunity and inequity are killing us.

Africa is the world's least vaccinated continent, for reasons that have to do with a dearth of wealth, lack of vaccine access, inadequate healthcare infrastructure, and -- something that should sound familiar to U.S. ears -- vaccine hesitancy. 

When South Africa warned the world of the newest coronavirus variant, since dubbed Omicron, the world's immediate impulse was to isolate the nations of southern Africa. Now we're learning that at least 16 other countries -- including our neighbor to the north, Canada -- have reported cases of the Omicron variant.

And on Tuesday, the plot thickened, as Dutch health authorities announced that they detected the Omicron variant within its borders before South Africa sounded the alarm about the mutation. It's interesting -- and I'm being polite -- that the Dutch, unlike the South Africans, did not disclose their discovery before now. The Washington Post reports that the earliest known cases are still in southern Africa, but it remains unclear where the mutation originated. 

One in four South Africans are fully vaccinated, a rate that places it third on the continent behind Morocco and Tunisia, according to the vaccine tracking of The New York Times. Less than 1% of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is fully vaccinated on a continent where around 10% have received one dose of vaccine, according to the Times. 

There seems to have been no coherent strategy to immunize people in Africa's 54 nations, many of which lack the vaccine stock or health care infrastructure to effectively administer it. Perhaps the rest of the world has no use for Africa beyond colonialism, extraction and exploitation. 

The world appears to think it can employ the usual barriers to reduce exposure to an undesirable element: a strategically placed highway, railroad tracks, a wall or an ocean. Police officers, border guards, immigration policies or travel bans. Racism, sexism or classism.  

It doesn't have to be this way, and it can't stay this way.

For most of the first year of this pandemic, Latinos in Richmond, Va., and neighboring Henrico County were most likely to become sick and die from the virus. But today, nearly three out of four Latinos are vaccinated, making them the most vaccinated group in those jurisdictions. Their vaccination rate exceeds the state average -- a result of intentional efforts to expand vaccine access. 

Immunizing an entire continent is a more difficult lift. But nothing good happens, locally or globally, without intentionality, education and a plan. 

The alternative is to continue staking out and jealousy guarding our separate positions on an ever-crumbling terrain. It’s no way to live, but it's a sure way to destabilize democracy, feed inequity and sustain the virus through its various mutations.

Perhaps Donne -- no stranger to deadly plagues in his lifetime -- saw our moment coming. But this about more than COVID-19. Systemic racism, injustice, poverty, greed and gun violence are symptoms of a larger malady. We are divided -- locally, nationally and globally -- at a time when we desperately need to come together to address inequity in all its forms. 

This virus is a reminder that none of us is beyond the reach of any catastrophe. It would behoove us to embrace our common humanity, before the bell tolls for thee.  

Michael Paul Williams is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va.; read more of his columns on Richmond.com.

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Michael Paul Williams — a columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch — won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary "for penetrating and historically insightful columns that guided Richmond, a former capital of the Confederacy, through the painful and complicated process of dismantling the city's monuments to white supremacy."

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