We did not plan this pandemic, and we cannot control every detail surrounding our current conditions, but we can control how we respond. We can be sure to thoughtfully consider everyone, especially our most vulnerable, to ensure we move forward – together.
COVID has once again highlighted the inequities in America. Some groups have acutely felt the pinch of precautions to mitigate the spread of the virus when these measures do not consider existing social and economic inequities. These discrepancies are call us to address inequities in our systems now, including limited access to technology, food insecurity, and financial instability.
Across the nation, schools at every level have closed for weeks, months, and in some cases indefinitely. While such closures are vital to curb the spread of the virus, many K-12 children, about 29.7 million a year, rely on schools for lunch five days a week. While some districts continue to provide food, not all are and without a government mandate, many children are left without adequate access to healthy food during this crisis.
Colleges have not been immune to these changes. Before some students can master online learning, they must battle a lack of access to a computer and internet services. They may only have access to a cell phone to utilize the online learning system, share one family computer, or not have access at all.
I saw this as a Government professor when I discovered some of my students’ only access to wi-fi and computers was on campus. Without the technology and support necessary to engage with their professors and their peers at home, these students question whether they will be left behind, not for lack of potential or desire, but lack of access to resources. How can these students be supported as they transition to fully online learning?
Many college students face an even more fundamental challenge to their health and safety. International students, students that have aged out of the foster system, and students that left violent homes are facing precarious situations. When schools close, dormitories close. While some students readily return home, for many dormitories are their homes. When they are forced to leave they are rendered homeless, losing their food supply, community, and sense of safety. How can they find a safe place to call home?
Students are not the only ones affected by these national and local restraints; families have been impacted as well. The CDC recommends a two week supply of food items to prepare for socially restricted living. For families where parents have lost their income and schools are no longer providing meals, this is a grave financial burden. With 40% of Americans unable to handle a $400 financial emergency, how can they cover expenses that could meet or exceed that amount unexpectedly, when they have also lost their income?
In addition to these measures, we have all been asked to help flatten the curve by restricting our physical interactions to our household groups and maintaining a 6-foot distance in public spaces. One of the last respites from these restrictions are parks, especially in urban environments. However, not everyone has access to these resources shown to decrease stress, increase immunity, and improve health – crucial coping mechanisms in crisis. Communities with high percentages of minorities and lower-income earners have been shown to have limited access to green spaces. In times like these, when stress is elevated and maintaining health is crucial, the lack of access to green spaces is not only inequitable. It is a health emergency.
The impact of these precautions is far-reaching and includes businesses as well. Small business owners with non-essential businesses were required to stop in-person operations, negatively impacting both payroll and profits.
I personally have felt the brunt of these restrictions in my work as an equity consultant, that often requires high amounts of in-person community engagement, which is now prohibited. I am working to reimagine what equity consulting looks like under our current restrictions, and joining thousands of other small business owners in the pivot to create and offer creative solutions to keep our businesses alive as we work to recoup our lost income.
There are other instances where precautions meant to help but did not fully consider immigrant communities, service workers, seniors, freelancers, and others that are seeing their current disparate circumstances exacerbated by this health crisis. But this does not have to be our final narrative. This crisis has shown just how connected we are, how fragile our nation is, and how strong we are together when we fight for a common cause.
When our residents and communities are strong, our country is strong, it is resilient, and much better able to respond when the next emergency arises. The beautiful bonus – we get to enjoy life more fully in the interim.
We must work to envision a path forward that reimagines our reality, possibilities, and new normal through an equity lens. Our next steps, our solutions, must create an inclusive and stable future for all of us.