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When contagion is bad...and good | Column
When an idea spreads like a contagious disease, it can be a force for important change, writes a professor of criminology.
A woman wearing a face mask walks near a banner showing precautions against the new coronavirus at an exhibition and convention center in Goyang, South Korea, June 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
A woman wearing a face mask walks near a banner showing precautions against the new coronavirus at an exhibition and convention center in Goyang, South Korea, June 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man) [ LEE JIN-MAN | AP ]
Published Jun. 12, 2020

Contagion can be bad and good.

The past five months have brought to the fore two issues, that while seemingly disparate, are in fact linked by one thing in common: contagion.

First, starting in January, COVID-19 spread from a single infection in Wuhan, China, to just about every possible location in the world. Millions of people have been infected, hundreds of thousands have died—as best we can tell with the incomplete data we have.

Alex R. Piquero
Alex R. Piquero [ Courtesy of Alex R. Piquero ]

More distressingly, data are starting to point out that infections, hospitalizations and deaths are being disproportionately born by minorities—and this is especially the case in the United States and its large urban centers (New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, Miami, Los Angeles) where African Americans and Latinos live in densely populated areas. And a great many of these individuals work in jobs that do not offer insurance but regularly expose their workers to conditions that do not lend themselves to social distancing.

COVID-19’s contagion is more than just infection going from person to person. It has also forced governments, some more (and better) than others, to think carefully about pandemics, public health and the kinds of preparations needed going forward.

Second, May 25 was a watershed moment for law enforcement brought on by the tragic killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In the video seen around the world, the excessive and unsanctioned use of force by a single officer, surrounded by three other officers, led to the killing of an individual suspected of passing a fake $20 bill.

The tragedy of Mr. Floyd’s death brought about a large number of protests that started in Minneapolis and then spread to other major cities in the United States. Protesters called for reforms to police departments, which they have done before, and in some cases there have been calls for defunding or at the very least re-imagining what the police do and look like. It is also the case that the vast majority of police officers and police chiefs in the United States have decried Mr. Floyd’s killing, with a great many of them joining protesters in their march for justice.

Yet, we have also seen these protests replicate around the globe. The contagion associated with calls for police reform are not a U.S.-issue, as many departments around the world have also experienced instances of excessive use of force.

What can we learn from these two seemingly unrelated events? Two things. First, we see that there are in fact many more things that unite humans than are things that distinguish between them. This is seen by how people abided by stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and all that has come with COVID-19. Second, there is a resounding call for more, better and transparent data. For without data, we cannot nor should not make any policy.

A year from now, where we will be with our response to COVID-19 and movement toward police reform? Optimists will view the glass half full and pessimists half empty. But, one thing is for certain: eradicating social and health injustices will involve people working in partnership together. We are all in this. Together.

Alex R. Piquero is Ashbel Smith Professor of Criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas. In August, he will be joining the University of Miami as chair and professor of the Department of Sociology and Arts and Sciences Distinguished Scholar. He can be reached at: axp1954@miami.edu; Twitter: @DrAlexPiquero