What the San Francisco Bay Area Can Teach Us About Fighting a Pandemic
The region’s hyper-local response has lessons for us as we confront the winter wave and begin to distribute vaccines.
Kim Rhoads, a cancer researcher and associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at U.C.S.F., and Kevin Epps, a community-outreach coordinator and documentarian—he is known for his 2003 film “Straight Outta Hunters Point”—brought to Havlir’s team an intimate knowledge of the southern neighborhoods of San Francisco, as well as a wide range of contacts, built over decades, who could spread the word. “If you don’t have community buy-in, there’s always going to be a level of distrust that makes these things almost impossible to run,” Rhoads told me. Over the course of a week, Epps executed what he called a “guerrilla marketing campaign” in District 10, which includes Hunters Point, Bayview, and Sunnydale. “This was door-to-door, posters, putting it out on social media,” Epps said. “I even was out on the corner with a bullhorn.” Epps combatted rampant misinformation. “Early on, a lot of Black people had heard they couldn’t get the virus,” he said. “Even more didn’t want to sign up for testing because they heard Google was running it and thought all their information was going to get stolen.” (The testing sites run by Havlir and her colleagues used Chan-Zuckerberg BioHub/U.C.S.F. labs; Verily, a research organization that is operated by Google’s parent company, runs most of the testing in the Bay Area.) “They’ve all known me for years,” Epps concluded. “That got through some of the trust issues.”
Addressing these issues requires a redirection of our collective attention. Our society has a habit of ignoring essential workers and the indigent elderly; we readily scrutinize the behaviors of the able-bodied and the financially comfortable but look away from the settings where risk and suffering are placed on the most vulnerable. “The public has this blind spot about essential workers,” Rhoads said. “If you can shelter in place, and there’s no real threat to your family, you have no real impetus to look at the problem for what it is. Someone has to keep the essential work going so that other people can stay home and program algorithms for Google. And as long as you don’t acknowledge that the real problem is that some people get to stay home while others need to go in to dangerous jobs or basically starve, you don’t have to do anything to fix it. You don’t have to look the actual problem in the face, and the zero-sum game of capitalism can just keep rolling along.”