A Pandemic’s Uneven Burden

A ‘Civic Science’ class helps students analyze, and talk about, COVID’s social consequences

In the past, Professor Jonathan Garlick’s course, “Science and Civic Action,” has taken on subjects with great public impact, like the debate over stem-cell research. For the Fall 2020 semester, the obvious topic was COVID, and he knew the clear focus was how marginalized communities have been overly burdened by the pandemic and what can be done about it.

“How can we prepare scientists and citizens with the skills and sensibilities that can help them respond to these challenges?” asks Garlick, director of the Tufts Initiative in Civic Science. Garlick is a professor at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, and also holds appointments in the School of Medicine and the School of Engineering. He is also director of science communication at Tufts Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

The course, developed through the civic science initiative and offered by Tisch College’s Civic Studies program, was designed around the intersection of science and civic engagement. The virus and its ensuing damage highlight how important that intersection is, as the 23 undergraduate students in the online class delved into the inequities that have marked the pandemic response and the failures of communication and public engagement that contributed to them.

The class focused on five critical areas of the crisis: the disproportionate effect of COVID on communities of color; vaccine nationalism, where more powerful nations seek to obtain access to vaccines ahead of others; COVID’s effect on food insecurity; vaccine hesitancy; and testing and contact tracing. “Each of those has an equity perspective,” says Garlick.

By the end of the semester, the students had created five issue guides that included scientific information and how this knowledge might be put to use in people’s daily lives. They also hosted online forums where members of the public could discuss the personal and societal consequences of these COVID topics.

Classroom discussions often mirrored those taking place among public-health experts and policymakers. The students examining testing and contact tracing, for example, looked at how to ensure equitable access to COVID testing for underserved communities. But, says Deepti Srinivasan, E23, their questions also revolved around best practices for contact tracing among people who don’t speak English, and privacy concerns, particularly in Black and minority communities that have historically been failed by the health-care system. “There has to be a lot of repair work done there if we expect contact tracing to go smoothly,” Srinivasan says.

And sometimes, the students focused on overlooked aspects of the pandemic. “There was a lot of coverage about toilet paper running out, but not so much about the struggle that folks were having finding adequate, nutritious food,” says Anton Shenk, A22, whose group project looked at the intersection of COVID and food insecurity. For people with some chronic diseases, such as diabetes, who are already at increased risk from COVID, limited access to healthy food contributes not only to poorer individual outcomes, but further strains hospital resources, he says. “We really struggled to find a lot of mainstream coverage about this.”

While the specifics of living through the COVID pandemic are often unique, the larger issues behind them are not, Garlick says. “There’s been this erosion of the public’s faith in science and scientists. And clearly there has been, at the highest level of government, a collision between scientists and policymakers,” he says. “The pandemic has precipitated dramatic polarization and politicization of critical science information.”

“Students want to know how they are going to talk to others about these highly charged issues,” says Garlick. “And especially, how to talk to others who hold different beliefs and values.” Students used classroom dialogues to build empathy and curiosity when sharing the impact of the pandemic on their lives. A class discussion with physician Rebecca Weintraub, faculty director at Harvard’s Global Health Delivery Project, for example, reinforced that science alone will not be enough for decision-making when it comes to approaching issues like vaccine hesitancy. “People’s values, beliefs, and lived experience matter,” Garlick says.

“The learning the class has done together could not have been timelier in the wake of this pandemic, because it has really been shining a light on the disproportionate impacts the disease has had, some of which are going to continue to create more public-health crises,” says Garlick.

The students ranged from sophomores to seniors from a cross section of disciplines in arts, sciences, and engineering. Bringing together a group with such varied backgrounds was a powerful part of the experience, says Shenk, an economics major. “Even over Zoom, you can see the community that we began to foster,” he says.

Srinivasan, a biomedical engineering student, says she has been studying science for years, but lacked the background in policy and communications. “It was hard for me to integrate those two worlds,” she says. “This class gave me a toolbox where I can begin to see how science can actually engage people in the community.”

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