Pandemic Narratives Have Transformed Our Reach Toward Social Justice

When we embrace our roles as the storytellers of COVID inequities and racial Injustice, we can create a cultural awakening and begin to heal.

Rita Charon
September 01, 2020


This is part of a Columbia News series, titled Lessons Learned, which invites the Columbia community to reflect on the pandemic and the insights they have gained from their COVID-19 experience. These essays speak to the innovation, creativity and resourcefulness we have witnessed during this period of unprecedented challenge, as well as some of the silver linings in the actions we have had to take by necessity.

Sometime in the fall of 2019, unbeknownst, our biological plague struck. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by the police.The eruption of disciplined rage that followed has crystallized into forceful demands for radical national action toward racial justice.

We cannot now reflect on one pandemic without reflecting on both, since racial injustice influences who sickens and dies from the viral plague.

Columbia University has not only learned lessons in the face of our plagues but has transformed its reach toward what I call narrative justice. Joining with national movements, Columbia has experienced an explosion of storytelling.

In the face of Covid, patients and families tell about their anguish. Frontline clinicians write of their shocking experiences. Covid blogs collate voices on public-access websites.

George Floyd’s killing has ignited a different kind of narrative fervor. Names of killed unarmed African Americans are chanted in protest marches. Videos document police violence to corroborate the accusations of victims of it. Poems and stories, visual art and music testify to the blood-soaked history of slavery in America and its aftermaths. Even Congress is hearing different stories today about racial injustice than ever before.

The pressure to tell emerges from the chaos and shock of the experience undergone and the necessity for all to hear what can be told: Mounting death tolls to COVID. 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Columbia’s College of Physicians & Surgeons founder Samuel Bard owned slaves.

Telling and listening to stories is the necessary prelude to action. When done in bad faith, storytelling spreads lies and widens polarizations. But when done in good faith, narrative work accelerates justice by generating connection, challenging bias, animating conscience and changing minds.

The Columbia community has faced the double pandemics with not just good faith but with the resolve to accept the risks of reaching for narrative justice. Such forums as “The Care for the Polis” series of the Heyman Center and Society of Fellows, the COVID-19 weekly Symposium hosted by the CUIMC Departments of Systems Biology and of Physiology & Cellular Biophysics, and the Mini-Institute on Addressing Anti-Black Racism hosted by the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement and the School of Social Work are not just informing us but triggering action.

The after effects already include radical change in how we teach our students to enter difficult conversations about race. Our health care has become more egalitarian and interprofessional-team-based. The Samuel Bard Professorship has been eliminated. Columbia is not just better informed about both pandemics but more powerfully equipped to bring about lasting change.

We could not know at the outset of the Covid pandemic that, amid all the suffering and death it has caused, it might awaken America to its responsibilities to justice. Is there a chance that we will emerge—in however many years it will take—as a sobered America, a humbled America, an anti-racist America? For in its very telling, it will have created a new cradle of justice for all.

Rita Charon is the chair of the Department of Medical Humanities and Ethics at Columbia Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons and executive director of Columbia Narrative Medicine.