Faculty Q&A: COVID-19 Inequalities Research with Dr. Nazneen Khan

News Story categories: Faculty Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Sociology and Anthropology

As the global health crisis began unfolding in March 2020, a series of related crises began, or rather, deepened, for children and youth across the United States. Responding to the rapid worldwide spread of the deadly virus, public schools and their associated support services and extracurricular programs shut down operations.

A woman wearing glasses and a sweater discusses COVID-19 inequalities research.

In this process, Randolph-Macon College Associate Professor of Sociology Nazneen Khan observed far too many children and youth losing access to the vital social-emotional resources that are essential to a thriving, vibrant childhood—meaningful community, friendships, and affirmative adult support—with disproportionate impacts on Latinx, Indigenous, and Black children. 

Khan felt compelled to document the emergent inequalities she and colleagues across her field were observing in real time. She began working on a book volume that would amplify both the perspectives of youth and children as well as highlight sociological perspectives on the unequal impact of COVID-19. The volume, entitled Childhood and COVID-19: Critical Perspectives on a Global Pandemic, assembles critical research from an international and interdisciplinary group of childhood and youth scholars who utilize a range of methodological approaches.

The following Q&A spotlights some of this important work.

Q: It’s clear that you were moved and inspired to work on this volume. How did that evolve?

A: As I watched the pandemic response unfold, my indignation and despair over the heightening racial and class inequalities intensified and I felt it important for these disparities to be documented in critical ways. In response, I reached out to my colleagues in the American Sociological Association and requested contributing essays that centered youth and child experiences with the pandemic. Within a few short weeks, I had received numerous quality submissions, all variations on the theme of childhood inequality and COVID-19. I was excited to learn of the wide range of childhood-related research and activist projects currently being executed by my colleagues across the nation.

Q: The inequalities you speak of are largely not new. How did the pandemic impact them?

A: This is unfortunately very accurate—childhood inequality, a product and staple of settler colonialism, is endemic to the United States. However, long-standing racial and class inequalities were both laid bare and exacerbated as the pandemic swept across the globe and shuttered support services for children and youth. Additionally, the aftershock of household income loss, parental unemployment, disruptions to care, family mortality and morbidity, and stressed health care systems, all pose additional threats to the already tenuous well-being of children and youth across the United States.

In over eleven chapters of the volume, authors highlight this precarity as well as the importance of having access to the resources that foster resilience in the face of childhood adversities. The consequences of the unequal distribution of resources are mapped and examined with respects to COVID-19 policies. While the chapters focus on a range of disparities, they are tied together by their thematic focus on the ways in which the pandemic has exposed and heightened health care, educational, economic, and social inequalities.

Q: You had an opportunity to mentor an RMC student who contributed to the volume. Tell us more about what you studied together. 

A: Yes, Amaya Boswell is an outstanding sociology major at RMC. She and I are working on a co-authored chapter that focuses on pandemic racism. Integrating her own experiences, Amaya highlights the experiences of children living in her Baltimore, Maryland neighborhood who are unable to access the wireless devices and technologies that are required to participate in school. We situate Amaya’s experience within the broader context of structural racism. For example, according to a 2021 Child Trends report, Black and Hispanic children are more likely to live in families that have/are experiencing three or more hardships—economic and health—as a result of COVID-19, twice the rate of their White counterparts. Latinx and Black children are also more likely to be diagnosed with MIS-C (a dangerous inflammatory syndrome impacting multiple organs), to be hospitalized, and to die from COVID-19 complications. These numbers are driven by pre-existent forms of racial discrimination. Structural barriers to nutritious food, safe, uncrowded housing, financial resources, educational resources, and health resources all underlie and propel these trends.

Layered onto these hardships are the direct experiences of racism being reported by Asian youth. In a youth-led study conducted by the Stop AAPI Hate Youth Campaign, interviews with nearly 1000 Asian American youth revealed that they felt others blamed them personally for the pandemic, and that they experienced an increase in discriminatory comments contributing to elevated levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Q: School closures were a well-documented impact on children and youth. How do you see this inequality manifesting itself going forward? 

A: Yes, several chapters examine inequalities in educational access and supports. Authors note that wealthier parents have been able to leverage their financial resources to turn to tutors and in-person private schools. Meanwhile, children in marginalized communities are unable to access the basic technology needed to navigate online schooling platforms. We are likely to see that the racial gap in educational outcomes will further widen due to these disparities. Another chapter focuses on the unique impacts of school closures on children with disabilities, many of whom are not able to receive the same quality of care in online formats. Many low-income children also receive mental health services and medical care through their schools—the loss of this lifeline has been devastating, as documented by another contributing author. The truth is though, many Black, Indigenous, and Latinx children, have lost something much more important than curricular content throughout the pandemic. Many have lost parents (some children have lost both parents), siblings and close family members to COVID-19. There are no policies or services that can rectify these losses.

Q: What other group of children and youth were impacted in unequal ways?

A: Additional chapters highlight the impact of COVID-19 on children in marginalized groups who face unique and amplified social, educational, and financial challenges. Chapters examine a variety of substantive issues such as COVID-19 related child and youth homelessness, impacts on mental health and access to youth mental health services, and disparate impacts on children with disabilities. For example, one author is conducting interviews with parents of children with thalassemia (a blood disorder). She notes their increased vulnerability to disease and the dangers of their inability to access vital care services due to shutdowns and limited operations of medical services. Another group of researchers are writing a chapter that illustrates how older youth of color are more prone to pandemic anxiety and argue that this anxiety has led to greater risk-taking behaviors that translates into juvenile involvement in the criminal justice system. The chronic stress of this pandemic is overwhelming, even for the most resilient of children and youth.  

Q: What action do you hope this volume will inspire?

A: The volume suggests that we lean into the moment and chart creative ways of reorganizing institutions utilizing strategies that are in service to childhood wellbeing. My hope with the volume is that childhood practitioners and researchers take seriously the social impact of inequality and that we take advantage of the opportunity to rebuild our organizations in inclusive ways. I hope that we all double-down in our efforts to take seriously the historical and social construction of unequal childhoods.