It has been over a year since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. We have experienced immeasurable loss, and our sense of pre-COVID-19 normalcy has morphed into a new reality that accelerates discovery, shines a light on racial injustice, and rehumanizes the chemical enterprise to unleash innovations from classrooms to boardrooms. There is no going back.
Innovation thrives in a crisis, as seen with the development of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines in record time. Public, private, and philanthropic organizations around the world freed up resources toward research on coronaviruses, and many people worked around the clock to bring vaccines to fruition.
The American Chemical Society and its members are right in the mix, engaged in COVID-19-related endeavors across all sectors of the chemical enterprise, including bench research and policy. Also, ACS is doing a fantastic job at connecting society members and the general public with a wealth of curated resources to navigate the pandemic. Check out the COVID-19 resource page on the ACS website at www.acs.org/content/acs/en/covid-19 for additional information. This communal mindset and behavior are every bit as important as the vaccine development itself. The pandemic accelerated the process of bringing innovations to the global market.
In the US, the COVID-19 pandemic has cast a spotlight on social and economic disparities, such as the digital divide, prevalence of food deserts, lack of quality health care for all (including gross variation in unequal access to COVID-19 vaccines), and underresourced schools. These conditions are not new for the disenfranchised or the working poor. Furthermore, our ability to build a workforce for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics for today and the future is at serious risk when these disparities remain. This sobering light on our pre-COVID-19 normal begs for a new reality. Over the past year, we demonstrated how different people from different places working together with a sense of urgency lead to lifesaving impact on a global scale. We already know how to create real, systemic change in our communities. There is no going back to a pre-COVID-19 normal that does not meet the basic needs and rights of all people.
The triple threat of 2020—global pandemic, social reckoning, and economic crisis—is still heavy in the air today. The open murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 compelled folks of all persuasions and backgrounds across the globe to protest the injustices that Black people have endured for centuries. The insurrection at the US Capitol in January 2021 was perhaps the most blatant civic display of White supremacy and privilege since the 1960s. The shooting of six Asian Americans in Atlanta a month ago is a painful reminder of the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans since the beginning of the pandemic. It is hard to unsee what we now see, and there is no going back.
There are those of us who are saying, ‘It’s about time you see what I see.’ And some are saying, ‘How did I miss this my entire life?’ And others are saying, ‘I still do not get it or do not want to get it.’ The truth is, many of us do not know what to think, much less what to say. Some of us are raging, while others are fearful for our lives and our children’s lives. We are coming to understand our Whiteness and non-Whiteness and the privileges and powers (or lack thereof) that come with these identities.
Most of us are not accustomed to talking about race and racism and would prefer not to do so, particularly now, at the height of social unrest. Nonetheless, we must engage with one another in honest conversations that may be uncomfortable at first but will no doubt get easier over time.
And we cannot stop there. As leaders in the chemical enterprise, we must commit long term to dismantle racism and other systemic barriers in the workplace and the communities where we live. Governments, businesses, and academic institutions are rallying to rehumanize their operations to attract top talent, customers, and investors. It is the new imperative for unleashing innovation in classrooms and boardrooms alike. There is no going back, only forward.
We need to work together as a community to bring about positive and lasting change. We can make a diference.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.