This story is part of TRACE (Toward Response and Community Equity), a year-long series that will track how and where the region’s government, philanthropic, civic and private sector is working toward a more just recovery.
Early on, we thought the road back from the pandemic troubles would be swift. Seven months and $40 million in regional COVID-19 relief funding later, progress is stalled, the economy has tanked, need is escalating and funding is disappearing — at least according to a survey of regional foundation executives.
“We are still in the relief phase,” said Joanne Craig, vice president for programs with The Foundation for Delaware County which launched the Delaware County COVID-19 Response Fund and gave out its first grants in April. Earlier this month, the Foundation announced it had raised over $700,000 but it was also in its 17th round of funding.
Craig said the need remains high: “People are still losing jobs and income. The loss of the federal supplement for unemployment is huge. Some have returned to work starting with limited hours only to learn the employer has decided to close completely.”
About 87 million Americans have gotten infected, over 215,000 million have died and almost 18 million Americans are unemployed — making the pandemic the worst crisis since the Great Depression. Recent data from researchers at the University of Chicago and Notre Dame showed that over the last three months, poverty has grown by six million people.
“These numbers are very concerning,” Bruce D. Meyer, an economist at the University of Chicago and an author of the study told the Chicago Tribune. “They tell us people are having a lot more trouble paying their bills, paying their rent, putting food on the table.”
Craig doesn’t need research, she just counts the number of people who still need basic care services. “The number of people still seeking food, diapers, baby formula and more week-to-week and month-to-month. The number of people who are behind in their rent and mortgages,” she said.
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And now a battered country is bracing for a second spike in the virus as most activities head indoors.
“I believe the region is still firmly in the relief phase. Not only is the public health threat ongoing, but the financial, social and emotional impact on people and communities is still very present,” said Emma Hertz, director of external affairs for the HealthSpark Foundation, a private, independent foundation in Montgomery County and a founding partner and investor in the pooled MontCoPA COVID-19 Response Fund which has raised over $850,000.
“Personally, I would not characterize the current state as a recovery phase,” agreed Pedro A. Ramos, President & CEO of the Philadelphia Foundation. Since March 19, The PHL COVID-19 Fund, the largest relief fund in the region, has raised almost $18 million and has had eight rounds of funding helping 575 frontline nonprofits deal with the pandemic’s economic and health chaos.
“Response and relief are still strained, but are now relatively organized, without the day-to-day vacuums/blind spots/gaps that emerged in the early stages of the pandemic,” Ramos said. “However, relief is still needed and likely to grow through the winter as public sector revenue tightens.”
“Though most of the COVID Relief funds are bone dry, we are nowhere near recovery,” said Sarah Martinez-Helfman of the Samuel S. Fels Fund. “Our region is swimming in grief and loss — loss of loved ones, of jobs and income, and the ability to pay for food, rent, medicine, childcare and transportation.
The relief that has been provided has been controversial for its inadequacy. “While the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued a mandatory stay on evictions, rental and mortgage payments will still be due when the moratorium expires,” said Craig. “If one cannot afford to pay his or her rent or mortgage now, how will she pay a lump sum to avoid postponed eviction?”
"Personally, I would not characterize the current state as a recovery phase."
Marissa Christie, president and CEO of United Way of Bucks County suggested that the move from relief to recovery is proceeding but unequally. “In our region, people aren’t moving along that continuum together. It feels like some COVID-impacted people, organizations and communities have moved into recovery. Some still need relief help with basic needs.”
That list of some would include undocumented immigrants who Craig said have limited options because they cannot access the federal and state emergency assistance programs. Hertz added others — working mothers, people of color, LGBT youth, persons with disabilities and seniors.
“Until we remake our systems and institutions to value people of all races, genders and countries of origin as full human beings, the ‘recovery’ will only be for some and it will further stratify the inequities,” ventured Martinez-Helfman.
Although some areas are working to unlock the economy and return life as we once knew it, epidemiologists say we are far from pre-pandemic normal. According to Yonatan Grad, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, “We’re in for a long haul.”
“Nothing about this is normal … Our nonprofits have lost revenue while demands for their services have skyrocketed. Meanwhile our city budget has slashed funding for arts and culture and social services while federal policy is killing people,” Martinez-Helfman said.
So will pre-pandemic normal return any time soon?
“I think we’re in a particular phase of the pandemic that is neither relief nor recovery – as many are recognizing that life isn’t returning to normal any time soon, despite our best hopes from the spring. Now we are settling into the mental stress of navigating this uncertainty with no clear end in sight,” said Hertz.
“ I know we will be back to normal (or relative normal) when conversations about community development — and how to ensure we are better prepared for future crises — are more common than discussions about COVID relief and recovery,” Christie explained.
But right now recovery is very far, far away.
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