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 Tuesday, November 28, 2006 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter

Special Pandemic Flu Edition


Pandemic Flu—A Call for Social Justice Action
By Richard A. Rodriguez, Ph.D., Director, Counseling and Psychological Services: A Community Action Center

I am thankful to Inside CU for having this issue devoted to concerns and critical information about the pandemic flu. As a campus community, we need to consider multiple perspectives: What are our fears and concerns? What are our hopes and expectations? How will we support each other as a community, ranging from those directly impacted to people who know others directly impacted to those who are concerned about contracting pandemic flu? 

I first ask that we consider community social justice needs and responses. In Susan Sontag's book, "AIDS and Its Metaphors," she raised several instances in which this country named diseases for countries and cultures (i.e., the Asian Flu, the French Pox, the German Measles). We have also been concerned about attacks from African "Killer" Bees and today, West Nile Virus. One of Sontag's main points was the unconscious linking of a disease to a specific population instead of to people who actually do have the disease, and how that could influence the assumptions we make and how we treat each other.

We fear what we don't know. When we don't have information, it is easy to grasp for assumptions and stereotypes in order to make sense of a confusing issue. It is at this point when assumptions and stereotypes can have a negative impact on specific groups of people, especially when we see groups as different from ourselves.

I recall when SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) became a prominent worldwide worry. People were not allowed into the United States from various countries suspected of having case(s); professional organizations were considering canceling national conventions in major cities where a suspected case was being investigated. I lived in San Francisco at the time and I remember having a conversation with a Chinese American colleague about the impact of SARS worries on Chinatown businesses and restaurants. She shared that patronage at shops and restaurants had declined. We also discussed potential discrimination against Asian American students from any and all Asian countries as a result of fear. This conversation took place at a Chinese restaurant close to the university and it was a conscious choice to go there.

I lived in Utah in the early days of HIV. I remember a state legislator calling for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to be sent to an island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake as a public health prevention strategy. This definitely added to assumptions and discriminatory practices against GLBT people just for being who they are—regardless of HIV status. I also recall attending a professional convention and hearing a colleague share that on his flight, the person sitting next to him asked him what his profession was and my colleague shared that he was a psychologist and worked with the GLBT community. That person then asked a flight attendant to be moved to another seat and his request was granted.

I know this has happened in the past and that it could happen again. Our fears and lack of accurate information influence the assumptions we make about people. I ask us to be mindful of how the words quarantine or isolation may affect LGBT people given past and current assumptions and discriminatory actions against the community. I ask us to be mindful of international students from countries where pandemic flu has been investigated and the impact of assumptions on their emotional and physical well-being. I ask us to be mindful of people of color, regardless of national/cultural origin who have had assumptions made about them. I ask us to be mindful of people with disabilities and the impact of assumptions of connection with pandemic flu based solely on being a person with a disability.

When stress and anxiety are at peak levels, lack of control is at the bottom. Accurate information can be invaluable as we approach something we don't know or are anxious about. I ask that we treat each other fairly, from a social justice perspective—acknowledging that people different from us have been treated unfairly in our society, given issues of power, privilege, and discrimination and that we all need to act as intentional allies to each other in order to survive (Jonathan Poullard/UC Berkeley). As we learn more, I am asking us to be checking our assumptions about groups of people different from us and to be at the forefront of preventing the spread of fears about specific groups of people. Starting here—del corazon (from the heart), I am hopeful that we can succeed in creating a mentally/physically healthy and socially just and positive campus climate.

Richard A. Rodriguez, Ph.D. is Director of Counseling and Psychological Services:  A Community Action Center and a Hazel Gates Woodruff Senior Scholar in the Women and Gender Studies Program at CU-Boulder.

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