New exhibit at University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History explores pandemic impacts, disparities

‘Facing the Pandemic’ free and open to public

“Facing the Pandemic” looks at the disparate impacts of the pandemic on different communities, the data documenting these inequities, and portraits and personal stories of people reflecting on the early days. (U-M Museum of Natural History/Nick Azzaro)

ANN ARBOR – A new exhibit at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History dissects how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted different communities.

Facing the Pandemic” was created using compiled data and research on economic, racial and public health implications around the U.S. and in Washtenaw County.

The exhibit tells the stories of local individuals, including a frontline worker and someone who was incarcerated to “humanize the data,” according to a UMMNH release.

“We wanted to show that, though all people experienced something profound during the pandemic, it was not equal,” assistant director for exhibits at the UMMNH Melissa Westlake said in a statement. “Some people experienced more loss, more financial hardship, more severe illness, and that was due to the way society is structured, not their individual choices.

“We raise a lot of difficult issues throughout this exhibit with the hope that, while the solutions will take time and societal shifts, we can all individually think about what we can do to help move toward change.”

The exhibit aims to stress the impact marginalized communities felt throughout the pandemic and expose both systemic racism and long-existing societal flaws.

More than 40 individuals from U-M’s School of Public Health, LSA, Ross School of Business, Sociology and Epidemiology departments, Michigan government, Washtenaw County and more contributed to the exhibit.

Through her research, assistant professor at Ross, Sarah Miller, discovered that between 2019-2020 high-income Black people had mortality rates more than three times higher than low-income white people. Additionally, regardless of housing, essential worker status or insurance, Hispanic people also experienced higher mortality rates than white people who are non-Hispanic, according to Miller.

Data from April 2020 in Washtenaw County, where only 12% of the population is Black, also revealed that of the 112 residents who were hospitalized with COVID-19, 48% were Black.

At a state level, the Latino community experienced COVID cases at a rate of more than 70% higher than among white Michiganders.

A study at the University of Michigan found that in 2020 the death rate of those below the poverty line doubled that of middle-class or higher individuals compared to 2019.

“We have structured society in a way that when a virus arrives, it’s going to impact certain communities more than others because of that structure, not the individual actions of the people in those communities,” assistant professor at the School of Public Health Paul Fleming said in a statement.

Being an essential worker also saw a near doubling of a mortality rate in 2020 compared to individuals who worked from home.

“When being told to work from home, social distance and get vaccinated, there are implications that those options are viable for everyone,” reads a U-M release. “The ability to social distance at home requires enough space to do so; lower-income families are more likely to live in closer proximity, making social distancing impossible. Access to quality health care and insurance is often associated with employment, while layoffs and furloughs were at a high.”

Visitors to the exhibit are encouraged to share their experiences of life during the pandemic.

“Facing the Pandemic” will be on display through Feb. 2023.