The question of “how to fix systemic fractures” was one of the first APCO Worldwide recommended organizations ask as they look towards recovery. It has become clear that what we thought were systemic fractures at the start of the pandemic have only exposed deeper cracks in the systems we rely on and the culture we live in.
Some of these disparities exacerbated by the pandemic are evident—rural and low-income communities have less access to the health resources needed to appropriately address COVID-19; unemployment rates for people of color (POC) are incrementally higher than white Americans; and nearly one-third of Black Americans know someone personally who has died of COVID-19, compared to 17 percent of Hispanic Americans and just 9 percent of white Americans.
There are many other disparities, however, that are only coming to light as we stumble towards reopening: with schools closed, many children have lost months of learning opportunities, which some will never regain; family caregivers, mostly women, are being forced to choose between their careers and their children, as the childcare industry is crumbling; and cutbacks in public services, such as transportation, due to lack of demand or funding are disproportionally impacting low-income communities.
Recent civil rights movements have driven rapid changes in public opinion, making it clear that society at large will not continue to tolerate the mistakes of the past. Data show that public support for Black Lives Matter increased in just two weeks by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years, and more than 75 percent of Americans currently view racism and discrimination as a “big problem,” up more than 25 percentage points from just five years ago. However, a recent APCO Worldwide poll showed that, while nearly half of Americans think the COVID-19 crisis will have an impact on racism and discrimination, they were split on if that impact will be positive or negative.
These disparities are also taking their toll on our economic recovery—economists previously estimated that even a four week school closure had the potential to reduce global annual GDP by 1.5 percent, and a recent analysis by the University of Chicago shows that nearly 11 percent of the U.S. workforce will be unable to return to work full-time if schools and childcare facilities remain closed. A recent APCO poll highlighted some of the things Americans believe companies can do to be seen as a good employer, both for short-term health and safety and longer-term support, including allowing flexible work hours (86 percent), providing resources for (83 percent) or extending remote work (82 percent) and offering childcare for employees (69 percent).
As disruptive as the pandemic has been on our way of life, it has created an opportunity for organizations to reflect, reset and reposition for the future. We’ve all known that a “return to normal” will look different than before, and now organizations should feel empowered to turn inwards and look at the disparities they have been perpetuating, intentionally or not.
A few areas organizations can focus on to address disparities include:
- Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives—how can you align these with your values and culture to ensure these efforts take root in the long term?
- Support for working parents—what can you do to accommodate and support the needs of working parents in your organization? Do you offer flexible working hours or childcare support?
- Marketing and communications—have you reviewed these materials for unconscious bias? How can you foster better inclusion in your marketing, advertising and other communications?
- Employee needs—what can your organization do to support those who may be disadvantaged by transportation disparities in your local community as your business reopens? How can you support those who may need to remain working from home even as businesses reopen?
- Community health—how best can your organization support tackling disparities in communities across the country?
It is important for organizations to understand that while the pandemic has tested their resiliency like never before, their long-term viability depends upon the consumers who will ultimately judge them on their ability to effect real change. That we are overwhelmingly united in looking to achieve meaningful progress on racial inequality is testament to the fact that there is no better time to work towards addressing the disparities that hold us back from achieving a better future. Addressing these issues and making these changes will be no small feat, but will indelibly help position organizations to come back and thrive stronger than ever before.