Our challenge going forward

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In these uncertain times, it is hard enough to navigate our day-to-day lives, let alone anticipate how things will look a few weeks, months or years from now.

But can we at least begin to think about how we use this crisis to explore how in the future we might build new bridges in this community and throughout the country and the world? We say broadly that we’re all in this together, and to a great extent that’s true, as few of us are completely unaffected by the insidious effects of the COVID-19 virus, either directly or via its multiple powerful ripple effects. It remains somewhat amazing how well we as a society for the most part have responded to the requests and demands requiring us to adapt to change, and create new ways of living our lives and relating to each other on so many levels. And there has been a wonderful response to the Community Crisis Fund and volunteer opportunities created jointly by the United Way, Community Foundation and Monroe County—with more than $3 million raised and more than 1,400 volunteers signed up as of April 10. These can be useful foundations to build on for the future. 

Don Pryor

Hopefully, the fact that we have managed to show our concern for others and make these personal adjustments in relatively good humor, and with respect for others, offers some reason for optimism that we might build on this traumatic pandemic experience to forge new relationships of mutual respect and tolerance, and improved ways of working together.  

Yet before we start feeling too optimistic, let’s peel the onion a bit and realize that we’re not exactly “all in this together.” Though we’re all affected, some of us have had relatively easier experiences than others in responding to the virus. True, it’s not been easy for anyone, but for some, especially those without kids to manage, it’s not been impossible or that difficult (though perhaps inconvenient) to stay or work at home, going for walks and with occasional forays into the outside world.

But what of those who are forced to go to work, who have no “luxury” of working from home? What of those on the front lines upon whom society depends: medical care providers, grocery store workers and food supply providers, public safety employees such as fire fighters and police officers, EMTs, truck drivers, sanitation workers, and public transportation providers? Add to that our teachers, who often are taken for granted and even subject to criticism from various quarters. How many parents attempting to home school now have a whole new appreciation for those who teach our kids and grandkids five days a week, in large classes of kids with so many individual differences that must be accommodated in the classroom—and even now, working remotely?

The list goes on: the critical workers who we so often take for granted but whose contributions during this pandemic are coming into clearer focus—far from taken for granted these days. So, while at some level we may all be in this together, as in so many aspects of our society, there are significant differences in what “in this together” means to many subgroups of our society.

What of those who are confined to small apartments with numbers of people crowded into inadequate and even dangerous space? And those who have lost jobs, income and employer-provided health insurance who are finding it difficult to make ends meet while waiting for support from the CARES Act to arrive—and those who will not be covered by provisions of that government support? And what of the homeless, who have no jobs to lose and few supports on the horizon?

Further, what of those with pre-existing health conditions that increase their odds of being negatively impacted by the virus, and others who are disproportionately experiencing the effects of the virus, including increased hospitalization and death? The data are becoming increasingly and irrefutably clear that certain geographic areas, our low-income brothers and sisters, and people of color all are disproportionately suffering from the virus, as measured by virus-related hospitalizations and death rates. For example, a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that one-third of COVID hospitalizations nationally were African-Americans—more than twice their proportion of the U.S. population (13 percent). In cities such as Chicago and Milwaukee, more than two-thirds of all deaths attributed to the virus were African-Americans, compared to about 30 percent of their respective cities’ populations. Other substantial disparities in hospitalization and death rates between white people and people of color have been reported in numerous communities—including Monroe County.

So, wide variations in circumstances argue that we are not truly “all in this together.”

Yes, the CARES legislation, and probably additional legislation yet to come, will certainly help alleviate a portion of the medical and financial hardships for many. But as we’re learning, not all who need the supports will be covered, others will receive less support than anticipated and/or experience long waits before aid arrives, and even the most generous support will in many cases not be sufficient to compensate for the disruption to individual and family lives. Local governments and school districts, many nonprofit service providers, and untold numbers of volunteers are stepping up to address as many needs as possible, but there are limits to what they can be expected to do.

What have we learned from all this, and what do or should we expect going forward? And what will we look like as a people—as a society—when we have weathered the worst of the pandemic and have begun to realize a “new normal”? Despite the optimistic returns to normal forecast by some, it seems more likely that we will look very different in our patterns and our lifestyles and in what we consider crucial to our well-being. But will we return to our often-siloed ways? Will we continue with us-versus-them politics? Will we revert to taking for granted those who make our lives easier and who keep our society functioning behind the scenes, often underappreciated and insufficiently rewarded? Will we continue to ignore the disparities in educational, health care, food access and economic realities between people of color and white sectors of society, and between those of different socioeconomic levels? And will we continue to enable—whether by design or (not so) benign neglect—those housing, educational, food and health care access differences that fragment and separate us as a society?

Or will we find silver linings in this horrible global pandemic? Will we use this experience to seek to build bridges to reconnect segments of our society and across our world? Will we finally recognize that we have more in common that unites us—or at least that could or should unite us—than divides us? And begin to change our politics, our policies, and our personal and societal relationships accordingly?

It won’t be easy, of course, and the problems will be exacerbated by the increased demands on state and local governments, school districts, faith communities and nonprofit service providers—at the same time as tax revenues and contributions are likely to decline substantially until the economy rebounds. For example, a survey of more than 2,100 cities of all sizes, conducted by the National League of Cities and U.S. Conference of Mayors, indicated that almost 90 percent expect revenue shortfalls resulting from the economic fallout of the virus. Nearly half are preparing to scale back various public services, and almost 30 percent anticipate having to lay off some governmental workers, including police and other public safety employees. All of our institutions will be forced to think creatively about how we retool and find new ways to exist and best serve our respective constituencies as we transition to whatever our “new normal” will be, supplemented and supported by us as individuals finding our own new ways to reach out to and support each other across divides that existed before the pandemic struck.

The unimagined COVID-19 pandemic has been bad enough as is—with more tragedy, sadness, and deaths yet to come. But how much greater the tragedy and heartache if we learn nothing from this experience and revert back to familiar patterns of the divides and borders that have limited and fractured us as a society. 

Nothing can replace the lives lost, other lives disrupted, jobs and income lost, lost hope and optimism—or minimize the fear and uncertainty visited upon us by this collective tragedy. But looking forward, as individuals, governmental entities, school districts and non-profit organizations, as faith communities, as corporate organizations, as political parties and leaders, and as nations, let us hope—and commit to each other—that we can at least learn painful lessons from this experience that will enable us to start the journey together to minimize the silos of our past and begin to take the steps necessary to build bridges toward a more equitable future. Let’s challenge ourselves as individuals and institutions to commit to start building as we begin to shape the “new normal.”

Don Pryor is principal, human services analysis, with the Center for Governmental Research. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.

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