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In the United States, like many countries, the most vulnerable groups of people are more at-risk of harm during a pandemic or natural disaster.

Vulnerable communities

Illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase

UD Prof. Sarah DeYoung discusses society’s most at-risk groups during the ongoing pandemic

You would be hard pressed to find a person on the planet who hasn’t been impacted in some way by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

But some communities have been hit harder than others, particularly those vulnerable segments of society and mothers who have infants they need to feed. Others have experienced other disasters — tornadoes, drought, floods — on top of the current health crisis that can overwhelm populations and their health care and emergency preparedness systems.

Sarah DeYoung, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice and core faculty with the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center, answered questions from UDaily regarding these topics as well as the impact COVID-19 is having on animal adoptions. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What are some of the key challenges that emergency managers and communities might face during the hurricane and fire seasons because of COVID-19?

DeYoung: There are a lot of overlapping issues. When people evacuate there can be hundreds if not thousands of people in one hurricane evacuation shelter. That can be a problem because COVID is spread from face-to face-contact. So emergency managers are having to rethink the ways in which public evacuation shelters will be managed in a way that prevents the spread of COVID-19.

Sarah DeYoung: youtube.com/embed/videoseries?list=com.synechron.udel.models.functions.SubstrAfter

Q: What are some of the long-term health impacts on infant and maternal health related to COVID-19?

DeYoung: One of the main concerns is infant feeding in emergencies. Because of the benefits of breastfeeding, we know that it's important to keep the mother and the baby together during natural hazards, disasters and pandemics like COVID-19. Some women might be worried that because of stress, they might be concerned about their milk supply, but they should still be encouraged to breastfeed because of those long-term health benefits. Ongoing support should be provided for African American mothers and other women of color because past research indicates that these women received less support to breastfeed. Another concern is ensuring women are not separated from their babies. This has been a critical issue in the health community because, initially, the CDC had a more stringent guideline about separating moms and babies under the COVID guidelines. The CDC has since revised the guidelines to say that it's beneficial to keep the mother and the baby together.   

Thinking about infant feeding, risk and context are key and geographic locations are tied to these different kinds of risk. Clean water might not be readily accessible in a refugee camp or an earthquake relocation camp after a major disaster. Not having clean water is problematic for infant feeding, and people don't have a place to bathe or wash their hands, which is the best way to prevent the spread of COVID in places where people have close contact with one another. Also, we have found that infant mortality is higher in states that are also prone to hurricanes: Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi would be looking at higher rates of infant mortality and maternal mortality if some of these problems persist. Those rates are even higher for African American infants because of racism and barriers to support in the healthcare system.

Q: What are some ways that COVID-19 has impacted the landscape of companion animals, such as pet adoption, spay and neuter and other activities?

DeYoung: There has been an increase in adoption and fostering. According to news reports, they’ve run out of animals to foster and adopt in New York City. I am curious to know how that's playing out in rural areas. It seems like there's a spotlight on some of those places where COVID has been more severe, and some have more effective marketing campaigns for their animal nonprofits. But some of those smaller, lesser-known animal nonprofits might have a bigger challenge in getting people to foster and adopt during COVID. Another potential concern is that some community spay and neuter programs have been scaled back or halted and that might have an adverse long-term impact on areas with pet overpopulation.

Q: Why are some people protesting the social distancing measures, in your opinion?

DeYoung: I think that has a lot to do with a psychological sense of control. When people feel like they don't have a sense of control, this can cause feelings of frustration.

There is a vocal group calling for a "right to work" who organize on social media through the tagline #reopen. It is understandable that people are worried about jobs and the economy, but vulnerable groups will pay the price for premature re-openings.

There are also groups protesting in favor of worker protections as people have contracted COVID at major meat processing plants, and for the rights of prisoners and people in immigration detention.

There are partisan divides on the goals of these protests. From a disaster policy perspective, eventually the focus of most Americans will probably shift to long-term relief and recovery programs as well as an investigation of the failed federal response to COVID-19.

Q: How does COVID-19 impact vulnerable communities, especially immigrant communities, in the United States?

DeYoung: We know that people who have challenges in terms of social safety nets and financial safety nets have a harder time evacuating because it's harder for them to access resources such as lodging, transportation, gas and food. Long-term food security is an issue because so many people have lost their jobs. This is especially true for immigrant communities. I’m working on a grant with an investigator at the University of Georgia where we’re working with Cambodian and Laotian immigrants and their levels of hurricane preparedness. What we've heard in the past few weeks directly from these community members is that they've experienced instances of discrimination where some of the Laotian and Cambodian teenagers are being bullied or harassed by white teenagers in the community because of their Asian identity. Another factor to consider is that the majority of that particular community we’ve been working with in south Alabama — coastal fishing communities — live at or below the federal poverty level, and so with COVID and now going into hurricane season these communities will have a lot more challenges.

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