The Feds Still Need HBCUs to Finish Off This Pandemic, And They Ain't Working for Free

From most perspectives, the federal government’s effort to save people from the ravaging dual effects of the coronavirus pandemic and American virtues of self-interest and impatience have failed miserably over the last eight months. More people get sick, die, and spread the virus here in the United States than in any other place on earth.

Now with a handful of potential vaccinations less than a year away, the only thing standing between the world and a Roaring 20’s reboot is our ability to get through the coldest winter ever, which most epidemiologists predict will be spurred by more welcoming weather for the virus, and people acting more stupidly with small gatherings.

One thing that the government has gotten right over the course of the pandemic is emphasizing the role that race plays in who gets infected, treated, and why. That conversation spurred other discussions on race and opportunity in the US, and in turn, a nationwide scramble for the quickest way to give the appearance of trying to reduce generational inequities for Black Americans who make up a significant portion of the country’s essential worker and first responder workforce.

To pull it off, federal agencies got busy calling in historically Black institutions to commandeer their resources to help in providing oversight to COVID testing, vaccine clinical trials, and community outreach about the dangers of the virus. Black colleges responded in exemplary fashion, with dozens of HBCUs standing in the gap to support community access to tests and contact tracing, and helping to develop the messaging to convince Black folks about the need to be represented in vaccination test runs.

But as we inch toward the finish line in a long-distance sprint to save the world, will HBCUs again be the secret weapon in helping some of the nation’s most vulnerable communities, particularly African American communities in the south, prevent unnecessary death and the collapse of emergent care systems as we know it?

Black folks trust the science and the word of scientists developing the vaccine less today than we did months ago. The distrust was compounded when two HBCU presidents, in an admirable effort to course-correct history in the midst of a modern-day public health crisis, miscalculated the message and the method of offering themselves up as vaccine trial participants.

There is a serious concern that with the deployment of a vaccine, a lack of outreach to Black and LatinX communities will turn the coronavirus into a malady nearly exclusive to these groups. New racial tensions will arise when primary, secondary, and higher education institutions and systems determine that the vaccination will be mandatory for student enrollment, and a condition of returning to work in certain industries.

The final phase of the federal government’s eradication strategy must be an emphasis on reaching historically-forgotten communities through the suddenly-remembered sector of colleges and universities who underscored the emphasis of Black folks being tested for the virus. The Biden-Harris Administration and new leaders within the Centers for Disease Control and Health and Human Services have to take a ‘Warp Speed’ approach to creating, preparing, and awarding contracts to HBCUs and their subcontractors to ensure that HBCUs can train and deploy the community influencers who can convince neighbors of what is truly at stake.

HBCU faculty, students, and alumni have been front and center in protests, voting mobilization efforts, food giveaways, and community testing that have worked to keep communities from burning to the ground during a summer of civil unrest and a fall of political, economic, and public health uncertainty. Our work paid off.

Now it’s time for HBCUs and all of their stakeholders to be paid for the hardest work ahead. Grants, contracts, jobs, student loan forgiveness, and workforce development pathways that are exclusive to Black colleges and the work of ending the pandemic are a start, but certainly not the ceiling of possibility.

The task is clear; build trust among a demographic for which the country has never worked to earn it, and at a time when everyone is tired of listening. It isn’t easy, but it is damn near impossible without the schools which helped the United States to get this far.