It seems that every business and organization these days is disseminating guidelines or thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Network for Social Justice is no different. Back in early February (that seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?) our Response and Advocacy Committee penned this statement about the danger of allowing fear and concern to give way to racism and xenophobia. While scapegoating and the targeting of persons of Asian descent remain a serious concern as we all deal with this public health crisis, we want to use this forum to address some different themes that continue to grow in importance as the situation evolves.
It is essential that we address how the inequities in our society lead to inequitable impacts of COVID-19. We know that COVID-19 does not discriminate against who it infects. The news has been full of reports of heads of state, professional athletes, and celebrities from across the globe who have received a COVID-19 diagnosis. At the same time, we must maintain an awareness that this virus is not, in fact, affecting us all equally. According to the ACLU, the populations likely to be most vulnerable to COVID-19 include those who are incarcerated, immigrants, and low-wage workers. Prisons, jails, and detention centers across the country are overcrowded and especially susceptible to contagious outbreaks. Given the racial disparities well documented in the criminal justice system, any outbreak in a prison, jail, or detention center would have an inequitable impact people of color.
While ICE has suggested that it will limit raids against immigrant communities during this period of uncertainty, the fears instilled by such highly-publicized round-ups may dissuade some in immigrant communities from seeking medical care. Struggles with language barriers may also prevent others from seeking medical expertise.
Also in the news is the way the disruption in our normal way of life has severely impacted hourly workers in many industries. Those who may be sick may resist staying home when they are ill, for fear of losing their jobs, and many low-wage workers who attempt to convalesce at home will quickly spread infections to everyone residing in their multigenerational households where “social distancing” is physically impossible. For those working lower-wage jobs in service industries, including restaurants, bars and hotels that do not offer the option of working remotely, forced closures in order to prevent the spread of infection are leaving many without a paycheck and lacking health care.
Compounding this, estimates from the National School Lunch Program suggest that 29.7 million American children receive free or reduced cost lunches. With schools on an indefinite hiatus these children are not able to receive the one or two meals per day that, when school was in session, were guaranteed to them. While many schools are working with community groups to provide a stop-gap measure for these children, with many households lacking transportation and internet access, the question of how to conduct this outreach looms large.
The digital divide is even wider in rural communities where lack of broadband and wireless infrastructure results in even less connectivity. Rural areas are also expected to bear a steeper burden when the sick, unable to connect with healthcare providers via tele-medicine, inundate under-resourced health care settings that lack beds, infrastructure, and adequate numbers of trained first responders.
The Network for Social Justice is just that, a social justice organization. According to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, “The difference between social service and social justice is that social service ‘works to alleviate hardship’ while social justice ‘aims to eradicate the root causes of that hardship.’” We have partners to whom we are incredibly grateful who are working to address the needs of our neighbors, friends, and family who are struggling or may begin to struggle as economic reins tighten, and the Network itself is stepping up to assist in the Winchester area, coordinating efforts to ensure resource availability to the most vulnerable in our community. However, our focus as an organization remains on addressing the systems and biases that are causing certain individuals to struggle in the first place.
How we will do this in the days, weeks, and possibly months to come is something that we are still trying to understand. While our in-person programming is temporarily on hold, the passion that we bring to this work is not, especially as more and more inequities in our systems and society continue to be exposed.