- Remote, digitally enabled learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has not been an option for many Black Americans: in 2019, only 66% of Black households in the US had broadband internet;
- To help address the educational inequities worsened by the pandemic, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) – and the bridge toward more equitable education for people of colour that they provide – need support;
- The Just Project has donated more than $25 million in diagnostic equipment, test kits, supplies and training to enable HBCUs to offer no-cost COVID-19 testing to returning students and staff through the 2020-2021 school year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the inequities faced by people of colour into sharp focus. Black Americans have experienced the highest COVID-19 mortality rate in the US – twice that of white Americans. There are many reasons for this disparity: Black Americans are more likely to live in crowded housing environments, are over-represented in essential worker roles, are less likely to have medical insurance and often lack access to healthcare.
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In addition, people of colour have higher rates of underlying health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and lung disease, which put them at a greater risk of complications from COVID-19. While progress has been made to narrow the gap in access to coverage, the road to equitable healthcare is far from complete.
The pandemic has also revealed the digital divide as work and schools have gone largely virtual. In 2019, only 66% of Black households in the US had broadband internet compared to 79% of white households. For many students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), the lack of access to reliable internet meant remote learning was simply not an option. Even worse, without a campus, some students had nowhere to go.
HCBUs have long been a bridge toward more equitable education for people of colour, as well as a path to upward mobility. For more than 150 years, HBCUs have trained and produced talented graduates, including doctors, lawyers and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professionals. More than 40% of African-American engineers are HBCU graduates. These colleges and universities have played a critical role in closing the achievement gap by making higher education available to minority and low-income students, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college.
For the more than 100 HBCUs around the US, the pandemic posed a significant threat. With smaller endowments, many of these schools rely on tuition and private funding to operate. They have also taken an incredible financial hit as enrollment numbers dropped. Furthermore, many US HBCUs are clustered in the states that have emerged as hot spots during the pandemic. The presidents of these colleges and universities faced a difficult question: would it be safe to welcome students back to campus in the autumn?
Despite the enormous hurdles, these resilient colleges and universities have risen to the occasion. Early on, a number of HBCUs, including Xavier University and Florida A&M University, took steps to protect their students, faculty and staff. Along with other measures including social distancing and wearing masks, they recognized the importance of testing and contact tracing to prevent and reduce campus spread.
I serve on the Board of Trustees for my alma mater, Tennessee Tech University, and was in touch with its president as he considered testing options. I was also thinking about my own son, a junior at Tennessee Tech, and what it would take for me, as a parent, to feel comfortable with his return to campus. The need was clear: expedite testing to help get students safely back to the classroom to continue educating the talented doctors, engineers and scientists of the future who will help prevent the next public health crisis. Yet the costs of ramping up testing was prohibitive for many schools.
As a global life sciences company, my employer, Thermo Fisher Scientific, was also thinking about how to increase access to COVID-19 tests in the hardest-hit communities. We have been involved in the fight against SARS-CoV-2 since the beginning; our COVID-19 test was one of the first to be granted Emergency Use Authorization from the Food & Drug Administration back in March. We have been increasing our capacity for test production and now have the means to produce more than 20 million tests a week. The company has always had a focus on supporting education, particularly STEM programmes, so launching a programme to support HBCUs’ testing efforts was a natural fit.
In August, we launched The Just Project and donated more than $25 million in diagnostic equipment, test kits, supplies and training to enable HBCUs to offer no-cost COVID-19 testing to returning students, faculty and staff through the 2020-2021 school year. We named this ambitious initiative after Ernest Everett Just, an HBCU graduate, African-American biologist and pioneer in science who received worldwide recognition in the early 1900s for his work.
We wanted to make an investment in the community, not just write a cheque and walk away. As part of this programme, Thermo Fisher has also committed to hire 500 HBCU graduates in the next three years. We realize that for any organization to be successful, it has to be led by colleagues that are not just talented, but also diverse.
To date, eight HBCUs – Howard University College of Medicine, Morehouse School of Medicine, Meharry Medical College, Xavier University of Louisiana, Hampton University, Tuskegee University, Florida A&M University and Texas Southern University – have signed on to The Just Project and will serve as testing centres that will process thousands of samples from HBCUs across the US. There’s been an outpouring of gratitude from the schools we’re partnering with and other HBCUs have asked how they too can get involved.
What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?
The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.
As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.
To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications - a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.
Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.
Good people make good companies and good companies can make a big impact. As a leader at a company devoted to serving and advancing science, I have always been proud of the work we do and the difference we make around the world, but the past eight months have been among the most profound and eye-opening of my career. I have been personally inspired by the Black leaders with whom we are partnering to break down barriers to testing so that HBCUs can continue their work in producing some of the nation’s top talent.
HBCUs are beacons of hope for the Black community and it is incumbent on us to help them continue to provide access to high-quality education. The project also demonstrates the power of industry-academic partnership and what can happen when allies bring together their capabilities to find a constructive response to the global pandemic.