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CUNY’s Africana Studies to Explore Lesson’s Learned from Women’s Collective Actions in Battling COVID-19

Bertrade Ngo-Ngijol Banoum

Bertrade Ngo-Ngijol Banoum, the chair of Lehman College’s Africana Studies department, is exploring the collective action of Black women to combat the pandemic’s impact on human rights, gender and race in their communities in her newly created course Africana Women Lead Through the COVID-19 Crisis.
Given the preexisting economic, education, housing and health inequities among communities of color, she wants her students to explore case studies of Black women around the world who have combatted these difficulties throughout the pandemic.
“We hear a lot about how Black and Brown communities have been devastated,” she said. “But I want my students to see how in these same communities, women are often the first to respond to a crisis.”
The Cameroonian-born Ngo-Ngijol Banoum was inspired to create this course last spring when she and Lehman Professor Mila Burns taught a joint lecture, “Women in African and Latin American Society,” with 100 students as the pandemic unfolded.
In that course, she used the inspirational examples of three female African Nobel Peace Laureates who each overcame adversity to make a difference in their respective countries.
They include Leymah Gbowee, who started a nonviolent women’s peace movement that helped end the second Liberian civil war; Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmental activist who founded the Green Belt Movement to stop the deforestation in her country; and the former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first democratically-elected African woman to lead a nation.
“If a woman can stop a war or be the president of a country, or start a movement to plant millions of trees, then women can do something with this COVID crisis, and many already are,” said Ngo-Ngijol Banoum.

Other COVID-related courses being taught at CUNY this semester include:
• Economics of a Pandemic – City College of New York
This course providing a multilayered analysis of a pandemic’s effects on economic and international relations policy. Students will seek answers to questions such as: How does a pandemic, like COVID-19, affect the economy, international relations and globalization? How do public health policies impact American households, workers and jobs?
• Disaster and Corona: Theory, Practice, and Current Events – Lehman College: This philosophy course examines how COVID-19 has disrupted many aspects of modern life, including scientific research, politics, education, economics, policing and media. Students will discuss how these disruptions have impacted their own lives.
• COVID-19: Public Health Perspectives – Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy: This course will be taught by multiple faculty from Brooklyn College’s Health and Nutrition Sciences department, as well as the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy. The rotating faculty will share expertise on various aspects of the COVID crisis, the history of pandemics and other related issues.
• Aging Policy and Politics – Hunter College: Taught by Ruth Finkelstein, the Rose Dobrof director of the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging at Hunter College, the course will focus both on the politics of aging, generational conflicts and aging policy, with an emphasis on aspects of urban life that advocates believe should influence policy.
• Fundamentals of Human Nutrition – Queensborough Community College: This class will focus on immune system-enhancing diets and specific diet-related protocols once someone is diagnosed with COVID. The course will also address common pre-existing conditions, including obesity, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
• Occupational Health and Safety in the Time of COVID – CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies: Taught for both undergraduates and graduates, the course examines how labor movements have consistently sought protections for workplace injury, illness and death. This class will discuss occupational health and safety standards and what can be done to improve existing regulations and laws.

CUNY Faculty Member and Paramedic Turned Ambulance into Funeral Home
“COVID-19 will be the new test case for studying pandemics from now on.”
George W. Contreras is a paramedic and an Adjunct Professor in the Master of Science in Emergency Management program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He knows the mental toll working on the front lines of the Covid-19 health crisis can take on EMS practitioners. He has borne witness to a great many deaths caused by COVID-19 over the last 11 months. He has turned his ambulance into a mobile funeral home, allowing grief-stricken families to say their last goodbyes on street corners in the middle of the night. The emotional toll has been immense. “It’s been very, very difficult for all of us, healthcare workers, EMS, the families, everyone,” he said.

As the months wore on and the death count rose, it became evident to Contreras, a 30-year veteran paramedic, that New York City — and the world — was living through a period that undoubtedly would impact public health policy, emergency management and emergency medical procedures for generations to come. He also realized he wanted to share this painful and hard-fought knowledge and frontline experience with his students in John Jay’s Security, Fire and Emergency Management graduate program. “I tell my students we are living history,” he said. “COVID-19 will be the new test case for studying pandemics from now on.”
He seized the moment, acted quickly and designed a new course, Public Health Emergency Management, using COVID-19 as the case study for how to mitigate, prepare, respond and recover from natural, technological and man-made disasters, while accounting for the human impact of such traumatic events. It is one of more than a dozen courses being taught during the Spring 2021 semester at colleges throughout The City University of New York that examine the COVID-19 pandemic from a wide-range of academic perspectives.
“CUNY campuses are imparting to students important lessons learned under the most dire and desperate of circumstances during this horrific and still ongoing global pandemic,” said Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez. “The hope is that these lessons will help to save lives in future crises and reconcile past injustices and inequities brought into stark relief by the pandemic. It is particularly fitting that these courses are being taught at CUNY, as many of our students come from some of the communities hardest hit by the pandemic.”

‘We All Need to do Our Small Part’
Contreras’s course looks at how public health and emergency management officials at every level — city, state, federal, global — are fighting the pandemic in real time. He has recorded interviews with local hospital and public sector emergency management officials, discussing their preparations and responses. As the pandemic continues to unfold, he plans on inviting these experts back to assess the efficacy of their decisions and policies. He will also examine the role the general public can play in helping to combat a public health crisis.
“We all need to do our small part so that the healthcare system isn’t overwhelmed, and we do that by washing our hands, wearing masks and keeping distant.” Contreras, a first-generation Ecuadorian American with aging parents, is fully aware of the mental and emotional toll that such practices can have, particularly on the elderly. “I don’t like the phrase ‘socially distancing,’” he added. “I call it ‘staying physically distant while maintaining social connectivity.’”

The City University of New York is the nation’s largest urban public university, a transformative engine of social mobility that is a critical component of the lifeblood of New York City.

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