WSU social work student observes the impact of COVID-19 on seniors of color from the lens of systemic oppression

By AeYanna Yett

COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on everyone, followed by many losses of income, family, and security. This summer I’m learning about its particular impact on seniors, through different projects I’m involved with, including Wayne State University’s telephone outreach to seniors and learning about groups serving seniors in the city at this time. I have the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Perry this summer as a student intern with the Wayne State University Humanities Clinic.  Since Dr. Perry’s research and advocacy address the well-being of older adults, I am learning much about this population and will remember this summer as I go forward as a social work professional.

As a student, I have experienced a great change in my day-to-day routine such as face-to-face interactions with students and teachers, and small moments of getting together with friends.

As a Black woman, I have seen the disproportionate way death and exposure from COVID-19 has tragically plundered through my community.

At a time in which the world is learning to value introspection to check their privilege, daily conversations have shifted to encompass the intolerable role that systemic oppression and inequality play in the lives of people of color, especially Black people.  I am learning that the detriment of systemic oppression and inequality is not mitigated with age but is cumulative: inequality and systemic oppression at the individual, interpersonal, and structural levels have been shown to be lifelong (National Equity Project).  Due to the city’s history, it is important to consider the dynamics of systemic oppression, inequality, and COVID-19 when discussing its effects on seniors in the City of Detroit.

Seniors are our caregivers, workers, teachers, and volunteers.  Seniors also face an increased risk to the effects of COVID-19 (CDC) especially those who are contributing as frontline workers or caring for other family members.  In lower-income communities like Detroit, many are experiencing the death of friends and relatives due to COVID-19 and challenges because of inadequate access to health care facilities and loss of income.  Access to testing has been a particularly relevant concern as well as the grave challenges faced by nursing homes.

Many seniors have lived lives in contexts of disparities and adverse treatment in institutions.

The gaps in access to health care, education, and employment grow significantly with age and result in an increased health disadvantage over the life course (Shuey & Willson, 2008). Health care, education, and employment are needed to ensure the quality of life for all of us, yet we have seen great disparities in these institutions experienced by seniors and people of color through systemic oppression and inequality, resulting in less access to equitable health care and insurance, inequitable access to education, and disparities in employment (Swinford, Galucia, & Morrow-Howell, 2020).

So, when having conversations with family members and friends about what’s going on in the world, consider the following questions offered by the National Equity Project:

  1. Who are the people affected by the current structure of oppression?
  2. Who does and does not have power in this institution, in the community? What is power based on here?
  3. How are we talking about the problem we are trying to solve? Is the conversation digging down to root causes in a way that could lead to productive action?
  4. How do we understand the economic and racial forces behind the inequities we see?

These conversations must continue to happen, to examine how inequality affects all of our health.

AeYanna Yett is a master’s of Social Work student at the Wayne State University School of Social Work, and Dr. Tam E. Perry is associate professor of Social Work at Wayne State.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020). Provisional Death Counts for Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19). Found at

National Equity Project (2020). Lens of Systemic Oppression. Found at

Shuey, K.,Willson, A. (2008). Cumulative disadvantage and Black-White disparities in life-course health trajectories. Research on Aging(30)2,

Swinford, E., Galucia, N., Morrow-Hollow, N. (2020). Applying gerontological social work perspectives to the Coronavirus pandemic. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, DOI: 10.10.1080/01634372.2020.1766628