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We’re ignoring an important factor when we talk about fighting coronavirus

I’ve begun drafting this sentence dozens of times. I keep failing to finish, but this is no ordinary writer’s block. 

Instead, I’m trying to find a moment of clarity as my 5-month-old screams and my attention-starved 5-year-old calls out my name. As this endless loop repeats, all I can think is: How are my husband and I, who both work full-time, going to get to the other side of the coronavirus pandemic

I know countless others are desperate for an answer to this question. We’re waiting for Congress to pass a stimulus package that might save us from the worst recession America has seen in decades. We’re wondering when tests, masks, and ventilators will arrive at hospitals, so we might be a little less fearful of COVID-19, the official term for the disease caused by the virus. 

Panic and anxiety threaten to overwhelm us — and our body politic. As the map showing the spread of COVID-19 turns redder and redder, it might be easy to focus only on what helps your family and loved ones survive this nightmare. Paid leave for your spouse or partner but no one who works at a company with more than 500 employees? Ugh but OK. A billion-dollar slush fund for “distressed” industries but few protections that would keep workers from getting laid off? Not cool, but if it keeps the economy afloat, fine. 

Our lives would indeed be far more convenient if we could distance ourselves from the complexity of solving the coronavirus problem. But now is a time for reflection. The world we live in once we emerge from the pandemic, in months or even years, must look radically different from the one we inhabit now. Every solution must consider the most vulnerable among us and be built with equality and equity in mind, not just expediency. 

If we cannot, for example, account for how incarcerated people, undocumented immigrants, and people experiencing homelessness will get tested and receive treatment, our efforts to “flatten the curve” will be in vain. The same will be true if the rich and famous can easily get tests while average sick people have to wait on hold or in long lines, arguing with bureaucrats and administrators about their potential exposure. 

If federal, state, and local measures to stave off a long, painful recession offer little relief for small businesses led by women and people of color, we will leave them behind with disastrous effects. Should we ultimately neglect to redesign the health care system so that every American has access to quality, free or affordable health care, we’ll lose a critical opportunity to ensure a pandemic like this never happens again.

“There is a moral imperative that we are all in this together,” says Sandro Galea, a physician, epidemiologist, and dean of the Boston University School of Public Health. “It is no longer good enough to say my health is separate from your health. If any of us are sick, we are all sick.” 

“It is no longer good enough to say my health is separate from your health. If any of us are sick, we are all sick.” 

Galea is co-chairing an emergency task force on coronavirus and equity. The group, which is based in Massachusetts, argues that the outbreak of COVID-19 isn’t impacting the state’s residents equally: The most marginalized communities are being hit hardest by the disease and economic fallout. 

The group’s initial demands of the governor and legislature are four-fold: ensure safe access to testing and treatment for immigrants who may fear deportation if they seek medical care; guarantee safe quarantine for everyone, particularly people living in homeless shelters, where it’s difficult to practice social distancing; pass emergency paid sick time for everyone; and, enact a moratorium on all evictions, foreclosures, and termination of public benefits like food stamps, Medicaid, and disability payments. 

Plenty of liberal activists and politicians have made similar demands while sounding the alarm over responses to the pandemic that could concentrate more wealth and power in the hands of the few. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with other Democrats, are pushing Congress to tie corporate bailouts to worker protections, and proposing that the government cancel student loan debt to ease monthly costs for millions of people, increase Social Security and disability payments, and offer unemployment coverage to gig and part-time workers. 

In order to beat the catastrophic social and economic effects of coronavirus, we must find the political means and willpower to ensure that our response is an equitable one. As COVID-19 spreads, it exacerbates existing inequality, and the most vulnerable Americans — our friends, family, neighbors — will suffer the worst. 

“I don’t feel like we have a lot of time to figure this out,” says Galea. “We are at a time when we need to mitigate the consequences for the most marginalized people now.” 

Galea says people who want to make that difference should contact their elected officials and urge them to support prevention efforts and relief measures that benefit and protect those most at risk. They should keep prodding those politicians to embrace legislation that ensures our public health infrastructure is responsible and flexible, and narrows social and economic disparities so that everyone can access safe housing, well-paying jobs, and other supports critical to surviving a crisis like the one we’re living through now.  

“Things do change when enough people of good conscience demand them,” Galea says. 

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