In June of 2020, the J. Walton Bissell Foundation refined its mission and compass to respond to manifest needs. We place attention on the present and long-term effects of Covid-19 in Hartford. Responsiveness to the wounds of racism and other oppression which inform grave disparities and produce different trajectories in recovery matters to us. Leaders of any ethnicity who are committed to addressing inequalities in any form, you have our attention.

No one will be ignored.



Disasters expose fault lines.


Gulfs and valleys appear where before there were cracks and crevasses. We can no longer pretend.


Since its onset, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided a lens into systemic racism and inequities across all domains of our lives. The urgency of new responses could not be greater.


Relying on experience from other disasters, we outline three stages of the Covid-19 pandemic beginning at present and the days ahead. Each informs potent and anti-racist action steps – around which we set out to share responsibility.


Stage 1 of Covid-19 includes acute illness and tacit ill-preparedness. As of February 2022, a sobering number of Hartford residents are in hospitals with severe infection. In addition, one group of employed people are exposed to the virus multiple times a day delivering packages to another group of people working from home. A number of households include family living in close quarters without witnesses to abuse occurring behind closed doors. Usual comings and goings have slowed, and isolation has become inimical to wellbeing. This week media engines tell of a new sub-variant of a recent variant that may dodge medical treatments. The news lands heavily in depleted communities.


Stage 2 is a time to survey the damage. It is pertinent to all disasters. Photographs taken over New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and satellite images of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017 showed devastation and the near total absence of electricity. Emergency crews discerned and triaged desperate need. Then and now, surveying informs responses.


As Covid-19 hit, in early pictures, we saw trailers turned into make-shift morgues and videos of unnamed persons on ventilators. Right away we designated “essential workers,” who were and continue to be disproportionately Black American and Latinx persons, including undocumented immigrants.


Narrowing our survey locally, we know that over half of children enrolled in the Hartford Public Schools were absent or unaccounted for when schools closed and learning moved to remote.2 Families did not have sufficient computer equipment nor internet bandwidth. And once vaccines became available, a lack in technology severely disadvantaged those who sought immunizations in a roll-out that pitted person-against-person for an online reservation. Neighborhood clinics in cities like Hartford were serving residents of more affluent suburbs who could more readily secure appointments online.3


Need for emergency shelters to escape violence inside homes accelerated, as did severity of the violence.4 Callers to 211 in emotional distress or expressing suicidal ideations increased.5 Reports of human trafficking grew. In addition, before the pandemic in 2020, there had never been such a high number of “transgender and gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed by [...] violent means, the majority of which were Black and Latinx transgender women.” 6


U.S. Census assessments showed: “Black adults were more likely than White adults to have taken on debt to pay for household expenses in January [2021], even after controlling for economic differences.” 7  Additionally, greater food insecurity among communities of color was measured in surveys. “Forty [40%] percent of people of color [in Connecticut] were food insecure compared with 24% of white residents.” 8


Both at local and national levels, vaccine rates have been widely disparate. As of February 15, 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that just over half (56.6%) of Hartford residents are fully vaccinated, compared with 77.4% of all Connecticut residents: an illustration that tells far more about our nation’s history than it does about individual behavior. 9


Stage 3 is pending. It concerns disaster recovery. We fathom the unspeakable: disparities in wellbeing based on race and ethnicity; gender and gender identity; trauma and mental health; religion; age; visual, cognitive, sensory, or physical disability; sexual orientation; isolation; and home locations spell disparities in our recovery from this pandemic.


When the number and severity of Covid-19 infections lower regionally, in our state, and nationally, we can expect media sources and contenders for elected office to ring in celebration, even if tempered.


Some will compare Covid-19 with the seasonal flu. Mask mandates will be gone, and large gatherings will resume.


Paradoxically, this stage portends new suffering and harm because of the gulf between visible and invisible. While one group is joyfully reuniting with loved ones, another group is grieving losses of life, livelihoods, and homes. Their recovery from the resulting trauma is forecast to follow a different trajectory.


We know that trauma for youth, as well as adults, is compounded by each additional experience of trauma. Therefore, pre-existing trauma is exacerbated by the traumas brought on by Covid-19. For children and youth, examples of such trauma range from involuntary relocation to deaths of loved ones.


Pre-existing trauma and other health conditions are known to have increased risk of severe outcomes. “Like adults, children with obesity, diabetes, asthma or chronic lung disease, sickle cell disease, or immunosuppression” can also be factors in recovery. 10


Pre-existing racism has increased the severity of outcomes over the course of the pandemic, and in turn will increase the severity of hardships in recovery.


We also know Covid-19 has generated challenges for those with disabilities. The pandemic has increased mental health vulnerability for children and adults. Many in our society think of mental health as something individuals have responsibility for creating and ending; but that is a belief not dissimilar from thinking of racism as something a person of color has responsibility for creating and ending.


We spoke above of children who became absent from online learning due to limited technology. We have learned that children with disabilities suffered greater learning losses than their counterparts. Now, children who are immunocompromised, or have family members who are, are returning home from schools where mask mandates are relaxing. We still haven’t a vaccination for those under 5 years of age, and removal of protections is leading parents to believe that their high-risk and disabled children are “an acceptable loss.” 11


In solidarity with, and support for, those who live with disabilities of all types, we must devise new strategies and support for recovery at the pace that is relevant.


A new, salient, potentially injurious part of this stage in navigating disaster might be captured best within a neighborhood, faith community, or friend group. Individuals who have felt a shared sense of identity with others may notice others’ lives have improved, but theirs have not. This group can feel the blow of unfairness more fiercely than they might in everyday comparisons. The risk of people harming themselves and rates of suicide become more perilous in this later stage of disaster recovery when it seems that one is not ‘in the same boat’ with one’s peers. 12





Knowing all this, making certain diverse trajectories of recovery will not render any person invisible nor blamed for their lived experience, we at the J. Walton Bissell Foundation pledge to meet each aspect of recovery with deep resolve.


We are devoting room so each of us here might deepen our understanding of the privileges we occupy as individuals and leaders of a private foundation. The intention in looking in the mirror with honesty and humility is to dedicate ourselves genuinely to something we are calling allyship. This has been meaning learning more about the harms suffered by members of all marginalized groups in our community and believing what we hear. It has meant asking new questions about how we might change and also become agents of change. It has included this unflinching purposeful statement, and it will continue to include refusal to look away. 


We are making room to maintain this work and to keep asking questions. It is an iterative process in which we return to ask are we active allies, passive allies, neutral allies, passive opponents, or active opponents? 13 14 





It is a well-examined dynamic that natural disasters expose duplicitous and oppressive institutionalized systems and structures. Natural disasters become catalysts to change. 


One last example: in 1972, an earthquake occurred near Managua, Nicaragua. This caused widespread casualties in the capital city: over 10,000 were killed, over 20,000 were seriously injured, and over 250,000 were left homeless. 15 Two-thirds of the population faced food shortage and disease; water was polluted and unsafe to drink. 16  The injuries directly caused by the earthquake are one measurement of the disaster. And, yet, what was exposed was the dishonesty of institutions and the exploitation of citizens. Already difficult conditions were no longer tolerable. The earthquake and its aftermath propelled the Nicaraguan people to a revolution. The earthquake of 1972 is said to be catalytic to the overturn of a harsh and inhuman regime in 1979. 17




Disasters expose fault lines.


Where stiff ground is broken apart and where savage systems have been dismantled, new openings and possibilities become apparent.







[1] Bethany Meilani Hamilton, a rising surfer, lost her left arm at age 13 to a tiger shark. In a comeback story that inspires many, she competes professionally, winning titles. “I didn’t need easy, I just needed possible” are her words. Hamilton offers Beautifully Flawed Retreats for girls and young women who have experienced traumatic limb loss. Documentary “Unstoppable” chronicles Hamilton’s story. Trailer is here


[2] Rebecca Lurye, “During a year lost to the coronavirus pandemic, many Hartford students are ‘spiraling’ and falling further behind.” Hartford Courant, February 21, 2021. Link


[3] Conversations convened by Connecticut Council for Philanthropy, including specifically “Vaccines in CT – How Funders Can Improve Equity.” March 30, 2021. Link 


[4] Information from Barbara Damon, President and CEO, of Prudence Crandall Center. Quoted in, “As pandemic grinds on, domestic violence shelters grapple with budget gaps, growing needs.” CT Mirror, October 18, 2020. Link 


[5] Lisa Tepper Bates, President and CEO of United Way of Connecticut, quoted in “211 Connecticut to Double Staffing for Phone-based Crisis Response Team, Expanding Resources Amidst Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month,” Connecticut by the Numbers website, September 22, 2021. Link 


[6] “LGBTQ community sees severe impact from COVID-19 pandemic, study finds.” ABC News. 12/22/2020. Researchers analyzed data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Link 


[7] Lindsay M. Monte and Daniel J. Perez-Lopez, “How the Pandemic Affected Black and White Households.” United States Census Bureau, July 21, 2021. Link 


[8] Data from Connecticut Foodshare Survey. Quoted in Siobhan McGirl, “CT Foodshare: Disparities in food insecurity increased in 2020.”, September 23, 2021. Link


[9] “Learning from the Pandemic: A strategic proposal for strengthening the collaborative foundation underpinning the public health infrastructure as a pathway to addressing chronic vaccine hesitancy and health disparities,” sponsored by Community Resource Alliance and Institute for Community Research. Position Paper was sourced by “COVID Conversations.”


[10] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People with Certain Medical Conditions: Additional Information on Children and Teens. Updated February 25, 2022. Link 


[11] Edith Brank-Sanchez, MD, Director of Pediatric Telemedicine at Columbia University-New York Presbyterian Hospital, and Executive Producer and Host of “Las Doctoras Recomiendan,” featured in Christina Maxouris, “’We’re doing everything we can to survive’: As the US looks to moves on from Covid-19, high-risk and disabled Americans feel forgotten.” CNN. February 20, 2022. Link 


[12] Center for Disaster Philanthropy. “Covid-19 Series” and its webinars April 2020-July 2020. See also “Mental Health and Trauma.”  Link 


[13] Katrina Shields, In the Tiger's Mouth: An Empowerment Guide for Social Action. A scale of allyship is illustrated as the ‘ally social barometer’ on page 54. New Society Publishers, 1994.


[14] Our interpretation of allyship is partly informed by presentations provided by Service Never Sleeps, a Black-led organization empowering and catalyzing individual and community action to advance racial and social justice through allyship and skills-based service.


[15] ‘Case report: Nicaragua-earthquake, December 1972.’ Agency for International Development, 1973, as cited in Urban History Journal, Volume 42, Issue 4. Link


[16] "Thousands Dead as Quakes Strike Nicaraguan City," The New York Times. 12/24/1972. [The front page article included: “Reports from neighboring Costa Rica said the Nicaraguan Health Ministry said at least 18,000 persons had been killed, either by collapsing buildings or fires that followed. An additional 40,000 persons were injured.”]


[17] David Johnson Lee, “De-centring Managua: Post-Earthquake Reconstruction and Revolution in Nicaragua. August 12, 2015. Published online by Cambridge University Press. Link


Rosa Krewson, “How the Managua Earthquake of 1972 Shifted Nicaragua's Social Structure for a Revolution.” April 8, 2017. Published by Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. Link 

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© J. Walton Bissell Foundation, Inc., 2022