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Trauma, grief, and anxiety complicate how communities of color view Philadelphia’s reopening: ‘The excitement is bittersweet’

“When America catches a cold, BIPOC communities catch pneumonia.”

A food delivery worker who did not want to give his name has "Be Safe" written on his delivery backpack while walking down Chestnut Street in March.
A food delivery worker who did not want to give his name has "Be Safe" written on his delivery backpack while walking down Chestnut Street in March.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

The stress of the COVID-19 pandemic is still weighing on Miraj Womack, a security employee at Temple University.

There was the fear of the virus itself: Unable to work from home because of the nature of her job, she’s been at work in person for most of the last year and a half, as even day-to-day duties were fraught with worry.

There were the financial concerns: Womack, 21, saw more than 100 of her colleagues laid off. At one point last year, her 40 hours a week were slashed to just seven. Seeing colleagues who got sick go without pay left Womack to worry about her own financial stability if she became ill.

“I have a 2-year-old brother — I was scared I was going to bring it home to him. And my mom gets sick very easily,” Womack said. “It was a lot.”

Many Philadelphians are eagerly anticipating a summer full of socializing as COVID-19 restrictions have lifted. But especially in communities of color, like Womack’s, that have been struck particularly hard by the virus, the return to “normal” may come with a significant amount of anxiety and trepidation, said Mariely Moronta-Sanchez, director of community outreach at the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research at Rutgers University.

“The truth is, those communities have never left,” she said. “The service workers, people who drive taxis, people in the supermarkets never left the workforce. The excitement is bittersweet. … Not everyone is vaccinated, so there is still this kind of insecurity about whether it’s safe to be around other people.”

Though many restrictions have been lifted, other concerns remain. “People still don’t have access to sick leave,” she said. “They still don’t have access to proper protections in their job, especially in immigrant communities.”

» READ MORE: 3 proven ways to cope with the trauma of 2020

Even if people identifying as Black or Latino could work from home during the pandemic, they likely saw social media posts about friends and family members contracting the virus and may feel survivor’s guilt, said Erica Wilkins, the director of couples and family therapy at Thomas Jefferson University.

For the many people who experienced trauma, a common survival tactic is to minimize the experience, she said, “and my fear is in the aftermath of all this, there will be a push by industries to minimize the very personal individual impact the pandemic has had. Some segments of society will align with that and keep going, but there will be people who are like, ‘Whoa, wait, some stuff happened. I’m still in recovery.’”

Wilkins said people have to recognize that while much of America may be in recovery from the pandemic, many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities are still reeling from continued racial discrimination and having been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. A survey by the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index in August found that 39% of Black Americans and 31% of Hispanic Americans knew someone who had died from the virus, compared with 18% of white Americans.

“When America catches a cold, BIPOC communities catch pneumonia,” Wilkins said, to highlight the outsized impact people of color have experienced. “I’ve thought a lot about this saying through this whole thing.”

That’s why it’s normal for people of color to be wary of returning to what they were doing before the pandemic, said Tonya Ladipo, the founder and CEO of Ladipo Group, a therapy collective that serves Black and African American communities.

“We’ve experienced collective grief and trauma for all the things we have lost, big and small, the loss of life, the loss of a job, the loss of going to prom,” she said. “Some communities have experienced it at a greater rate. And there is a complexity with that grief that comes with being Black, because you also have the grief and trauma from being Black in America.”

The Asian American community has also experienced heightened feelings of fear due to the increase in anti-Asian violence in the last year, Moronta-Sanchez said. Older Asian Americans, in particular, are still afraid to go into public spaces.

“Just the sheer fact that you hear about things happening to people in your community, that causes trauma,” she said. “Trauma and stress is not new to any of us. It’s brought on by our housing conditions, access to food, losing our jobs … but the impact that racism and discrimination has, that kind of trauma changes your DNA, and it’s passed on to your children. We’re recognizing as a community that we need to stop this generational issue by bringing to light the mental health challenges we have been experiencing.”

Some people of color are hesitant to return to offices and other workplaces where they will have to talk more about race with coworkers who may not be understanding or empathetic after George Floyd’s murder last year, Ladipo said. The emotional toll that those conversations take on Black people is significant, she said.

“Last year was a wake-up call for a lot of people and there is definitely some frustration and anger around that,” Ladipo said. “But what I can’t emphasize enough is that the impact of systemic racism is so familiar to a lot of people as well, and it existed long before Floyd was murdered and before the pandemic started. Black people have been feeling this for many years.”

Wilkins said employers should be aware that some of their employees may not want to reenter physical workplaces where they have to culturally code-switch, or purposefully change their behavior to fit white-focused cultural norms, because of how much more energy that requires.

“Instead of ... making proclamations and declarations about what will be, bosses and leaders should use their positions to inquire about needs,” she said. “They should be figuring out how to best attend to their employees’ needs in this new normal that we are in. What we’ve learned in this last year is that work can be done, and there’s room for flexibility.”

One way to process the complex emotions that come with reopening is by journaling, Ladipo said. Acknowledging the feelings — good and bad — by putting pen to paper can help people understand their fears, anxieties, and joy about being able to do things they haven’t been able to do for over a year.

“Just being able to say it, honor it, and not judge yourself for how you feel is the biggest thing,” Ladipo said. “This is the moment that we are in. Grief looks different for everyone.”

Womack said she’s still thinking about getting the COVID-19 vaccine, and wants to learn more about it. Her hesitation is not unique among Black Americans, for whom distrust of the medical industry has been sharper due to historic mistreatment. She’s nervous about long-term side effects, though the vaccine trials — and the millions of Americans who have received the shot this year — show no such risk.

But Womack is also nervous about contracting the virus at her job as the city begins to reopen.

“I don’t think I’ll be out that much. I don’t want to get the virus,” she said. “I’m happy everything is opening back up — but I’m scared, because I fear that everything will start skyrocketing again.”