In the Age of COVID-19: Lessons from MLK

Apr 10, 2020 by

With a death toll from the coronavirus reaching towards a possible May zenith, sheltering in place provides us with time for personal reflection during this Holy Week. 

We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” I pondered these words spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr. decades ago. They still ring true of America today.

 MLK was speaking about injustices and the lack of equity in our great country that is as true today as it was then. I wonder what he would have to say today as once again the curtain has been pulled back to expose America’s ugly societal inequities. 

With all the talk about “flattening the curve” and “social distancing” to slow the COVID-19 infection rate, healthcare issues have again come to the fore in America. As King said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane.”

If only America held the same values about flattering our levels of poverty, and health and educational inequality in Michigan and in America. This pandemic has cracked the egg of injustice in America and the yoke is running for all to see.

Each day the coronavirus is in the air the societal inequities in our country become clearer. These injustices have always been there, buried under a thin veneer of deniability and capitalism. It is convenient to not acknowledge them, because once visible, a moral, thinking person might ask, ‘Why have we overlooked or denied their existence for so long?’

Greg Olszta, a lifelong friend, colleague, and member of the Michigan Poor People’s Campaign, says this about how the coronavirus has laid bare injustices, unfairness and downright inhumanity in our society, “The COVID-19 pandemic has propelled us into a national, state, and local crisis. However, the crisis has been long in the making, overlooked and ignored by local, state, and federal policy makers and leaders. The longer-term crisis in our major urban and rural areas is deep poverty and lack of access to health care resources that impacts 140 million poor and low-income individuals.  We know that pre-existing illnesses are amplified by the COVID-19 infections … The current pandemic shines a light on the inequality and injustice that we have ignored for so long!

The weeks since schools and businesses have shuttered and people began to be infected and die are akin to a puppy being snatched by the scruff of the neck and had its face rubbed in its mess left on the living room rug. The stench of the inequity seems that difficult to ignore: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” (MLK)

This pandemic is holding up a mirror and reflecting who we really are and what we truly believe in as a society.

We are now seeing how we have failed poor families and children with the great economic disparities in our world, exposed for all to see. 

The coronavirus disrupted our world and has magnified just how education is being provided (or not provided) across Michigan/America  

today. Educations talk about how education is continuing with e-learning when we know full well there are countless families without broadband access in rural parts of our state. Even in good times, people struggle to put food on the table and to pay the rent. Many simply don’t have the resources to pay for internet connectivity or multiple electronic devices needed to perpetuate learning at home in rural, suburban and urban communities.

The coronavirus has scrabbled much of what we took for granted in educational policy in Michigan and across the country. Having witnessed these flaws, it would be pure folly to simply go back to the old “normal”. We now have an opportunity to restructure the 20th century antiquated educational system that invests billions of dollars annually into something that will produce better and more equitable results for all.

The Los Angeles Times wrote that the COVID-19 crisis threatens to undo years of educational efforts to help disadvantaged students catch up to their more affluent classmates. Those same old problems — lack of internet access or computers for doing homework, parents with limited financial or educational resources to help their children with school — are exacerbated now that students are required to learn not in a classroom, but remotely.

We know this does not have to be true.

This New York Times article captures the inequities loop painfully well , “As the coronavirus spreads across the globe, it appears to be setting off a devastating feedback loop with another of the gravest forces of our time: economic inequality. In societies where the virus hits, it is deepening the consequences of inequality, pushing many of the burdens onto the losers of today’s polarized economies and labor markets. Research suggests that those in the lower economic strata are likelier to catch the disease. 

They are also likelier to die from it. Even those who remain healthy are likelier to suffer loss of income or health care as a result of quarantines and other measures – on a potentially sweeping scale. At the same time, inequality itself may be acting as a multiplier on the coronavirus’s spread and deadliness. Research on influenza has found that in any epidemic, poverty and inequality can exacerbate rates of transmission and mortality for everyone.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (MLK)

People our becoming ill and dying because of the lack of preparedness and the fact that some lives were marginal at best before the crisis. What may be a ripple of change for the middle and upper classes has be a tsunami for the poor and marginalized citizens on the fringes of society.

Forbes magazine exposes what was known before and what COVID-19 has highlighted for everyone to see: there are great health disparities in America between white people and people of color: “The world knows coronavirus disproportionately affects black and brown communities in the US. Starting with a news story from Chicago, 70% of all COVID-19 deaths were among black people. Over the next 24 hours a wave of attention focused on death disparities in black America wafted across the airwaves as news in other states highlighted similar disparities in Michigan, Louisiana, Wisconsin, and New York where the death rate is similar for blacks and Hispanics.”

Exposing Inequities and Flaws – Now What?

It has been said ‘a crisis is a terrible thing to waste’. THIS crisis should lead to progress for Michigan’s and American children and those on the margins of society. This will only take place if we learn from the lessons that have been stuffed in our faces because of this calamity. “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” (MLK).

We must deal with the poverty and health inequities that are killing Americans. In a moral society, those who need MORE should receive MORE.

Our goal must be to enhance educational excellence for every student. Every school. Every state. A pandemic is a terrible thing to waste.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?” (MLK)

What are we going to do?

Tom Watkins has served the citizens of Michigan in his capacities as State Superintendent of Schools and State Mental Health Director. You can reach Watkins @

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1 Comment

  1. Steve

    It is a good article . I one hundred percent agree with you