OPINION: We need to consider marginalized communities in the decision to return to campus

A face mask on the ground
(HuxleyAnn Huefner • The Student Life)

In all the debate about returning to Claremont, I have been concerned. Most of the discussion has seemed to revolve around the health and safety of the college community, but there has been very little attention paid to the effect that our presence would have on surrounding communities, particularly for disabled people, people of color and low-income people.

I fully recognize that being on campus is essential for some students to achieve their academic goals and for other students to have a safe living environment, but I also think we need to recognize that our presence could be highly detrimental to the communities around our campuses.

Most obviously, when we arrive on campus from different places from all over the world, it is hard to imagine that we will all come without a single person carrying coronavirus to our campuses. Our college administrations have acknowledged the inevitability of COVID-19 cases on campus in their communications with us.

As Donnie Denome CG ’21 and Carson Herness HM ’21 wrote in a TSL op-ed last week, the likelihood of a single person with coronavirus spreading it to other people in a college environment is high, and a single case of community transmission can easily become an outbreak. Because students will still be able to leave campus for grocery runs and on-campus faculty and staff will head home at the end of the day, an outbreak on campus will undoubtedly spread to communities around us.

I also worry about the effect of our presence on hospital resources. Before the pandemic in 2017, the Inland Empire already faced a shortage of doctors, with only 39 physicians per 100,000 people, which falls far short of the recommendation for 70 physicians per 100,000 people. 

The Claremont Colleges sit right on the border of the Inland Empire and Los Angeles County, and if the spread of the virus continues to escalate, and more people are hospitalized, it is likely that Inland Empire patients would be sent to hospitals in our part of LA County. But we already have a serious problem with available hospital beds in the area. As of July 5, county health officials have said they could run out of hospital beds in 2-3 weeks and ICU beds even sooner, and San Bernardino County only has 117 ICU beds left

If there is an outbreak on campus, Claremont community members who are hospitalized, including students, could end up in competition for scarce hospital beds and ventilators. This scenario troubles me the most because we know that when doctors have to prioritize who they give care to, they explicitly prioritize the young and the nondisabled, and they often leave people of color and low-income and uninsured people behind.

Although many people who might decide to return to our campuses are vulnerable to medical discrimination due to disability, race or age, our student body as a whole skews younger than our surrounding communities, and we all are required to have health insurance. These are privileges that could lead students from the Claremont Colleges to get beds, while doctors decide that disabled people in our broader region do not have the “quality of life” to merit treatment. 

This happened to Michael Hickson, a disabled Black man who died from COVID-19 after his hospital refused to continue treating him against his wife’s wishes. This has happened, I am sure, to many others. As disabled author and advocate Steven Spohn tweeted, “I’ve been stewing on this for a few days as I try to come up with the right words to explain to you how much an underlying fear this scenario is for much of the disabled community. We live our entire lives in fear that one day a doctor will decide we just aren’t worth it.”

Thankfully, the California Department of Public Health has said explicitly that disability and other protected classes cannot be used to make decisions about the allocation of scarce resources, but this does not guarantee that the pervasive prejudice against disabled people in the medical system will not influence the decisions of individual doctors. These prejudices are evident in the plans of Kansas, Tennessee and New York to take away home ventilators from disabled people who use them to breathe and stay active and reallocate them to others. Washington State and other states are explicitly using age and disability to make decisions about the allocation of scarce resources, according to NPR.

As a community, we need to demand that our administrators consider our potential impact on Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire in the decision-making around plans to come back to campus, and we need to consider if the potential benefits to our 5C community are worth the damage our presence could inflict on marginalized people around us. 

Aleja Hertzler-McCain PO ’21 is from Mount Rainier, Maryland. She believes everyone could benefit from a better education in disability rights history, and she recommends Netflix’s Crip Camp as a good place to start.

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