COVID-19 “Hotspots” Project Description

Why and how has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated pre-existing social, political, and racial inequalities? The following case studies on COVID-19 “hotspots” are the culmination of a joint research project in the summer of 2020, co-sponsored by the Rapoport Center at the University of Texas at Austin, Harvard Law School, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and Northeastern Law School. Directed by Rapoport Center professors and co-directors Karen Engle (Law) and Neville Hoad (English), Harvard Law professor Lucie White, and Northeastern Law Professor Dan Danielsen, the research team included an interdisciplinary group of over thirty law, graduate, and undergraduate students from the various institutions.

Through consideration of construction workers in Austin, Texas and the United Arab Emirates; food workers in Immokalee, Florida and Gainesville, Georgia; and care workers in Chelsea, Massachusetts, the studies explain how and why these hotspots emerged among low-income Black and Brown, generally immigrant, workers who have been deemed “essential” during the pandemic. The studies explore a number of historical political and legal drivers that made these workers particularly vulnerable to the health and economic effects of the pandemic. Interviews with workers, advocates, and journalists ground the research in the lived reality of the pandemic, centering the perspectives of those in the best position to speak to its effects.

The studies examine a variety of terrains: the invisible or undervalued domain of feminized care work, the male-dominated world of construction work carried out in the full light of day, and agriculture work and food processing at the base of US and global supply chains. Yet, across each site, the policies and legal regimes the reports highlight demonstrate that workers are constrained by immigration law, subject to racialized spatial arrangements, and negatively affected by economic policies that favor capital and private sector growth. Multiple structural factors combine to make certain workers at the same time both “essential” and expendable.


This project took an enormous amount of coordination and collaboration among researchers across the United States and beyond. Special thanks to Mishal Khan, postdoctoral fellow at the Rapoport Center, for her stellar work in editing the materials for the project and leadership in designing the website. We are also grateful to Rapoport Center Assistant Director Sarah Eliason for her meticulous logistical coordination throughout the summer, and to Melanie Lindahl and Adam Norwood from UT Law Technology Services for their invaluable contributions in bringing the website to life. Rapoport Center undergraduate intern Jacob Blas was indispensable in creating the graphics, editing content, and adding finesse to each of the web pages for the project. This project also benefited from editing and proofreading support by Rapoport Center Human Rights Scholars Sheela Ranganathan and Noorulanne Jan.