This story is part of TRACE (Toward Response and Community Equity), a year-long series that tracks how and where the region’s government, philanthropic, civic and private sector is working toward a more just recovery.
At last count, in the United States alone, COVID had sickened almost 34 million, killed 600,000, and has left over three million with what may be life-long symptoms.
Recovery from the health, economic and social justice issues that the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated will not mean a return to yesteryear but something altogether different.
For almost a year, Generocity’s TRACE project has covered COVID’s impact on the region as policy makers, nonprofits and foundations have struggled to deal with overwhelming issues — unemployment, housing insecurity, hunger, the digital divide — to name a few. The country will be studying this disaster and America’s response for many decades to come.
However, in this penultimate article of the TRACE project, we wanted to share a conversation between the project’s reporter (Lynette Hazelton) and its editor (Sabrina Vourvoulias) to share our lessons learned.
As you researched, wrote, edited the articles of the TRACE series, if you had to pick one thing, what stood out the most for you?
Lynette Hazelton — You could summarize my first and maybe most lasting impression with the word fragility. Our health, our wealth, our school districts, our health system — so much is much more fragile, more easily broken than I originally thought. Take small business. Two out of every 10 small businesses fail by the first year; 70% by the tenth year. For Black-owned businesses, the numbers are even higher: eight out of 10 Black-owned businesses fail within the first 18 months. Yet, collectively, more folks work for a small business, but it is predicted that of the 30 plus million small businesses currently operating in the U.S., most won’t survive COVID.
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Sabrina Vourvoulias — I was amazed by how quickly small community organizations mobilized and activated safety nets for the vulnerable communities they serve. I’m thinking of immigrant advocacy organizations, for example, who immediately offered food relief; activated their informal networks for peer-to-peer digital training, clearing up health misinformation, and facilitating social interaction; and even set up collective funds that provided much needed rental and unemployment assistance to those completely shut off from government help. These were heroic efforts by people who left everything on the field — and I’m still speechless with awe at our community organizations’ dedication and ingenuity.
What do you think is one of the major challenges facing the region in terms of recovery?
Hazelton — COVID has been a shared disaster and it has left us a sad, grieving, burnt-out people. I would say we are faced with the need to heal emotionally and mentally from COVID. But even before the pandemic hit, we were facing increasing mental health issues. I remember that Joe Pyle, president of the Scattergood Foundation once said that mental health was our next pandemic.
Vourvoulias — The greatest challenge is that the pandemic devastated those who are economically vulnerable while merely discomforting those who are not — and I’m not sure there are mechanisms in place to ensure that the recovery isn’t equally lopsided.
Were there moments of optimism during the reporting of TRACE?
Hazelton — There was an outpouring of charitable support when COVID first hit and the stories began to pour out that people, through no fault of their own, were losing their jobs and eating was becoming impossible. Food banks across the country saw a substantial uptick in demand, but also a significant uptick in donations. I think it is amazing, too, that Philadelphia Foundation spearheaded an effort that raised and distributed $18.4 million to a variety of safety net groups.
Vourvoulias — The rate at which a vaccine was developed and became available was, and is, cause for optimism about our capabilities to respond to future public health threats. It brings up a whole host of questions that aren’t a cause for optimism (inequality of access and distribution, profiteering, why haven’t we developed vaccines for other contagious viruses at this clip, etc.) but the vaccine itself? Definitely an optimist’s victory.
What issue do you think is significant post-pandemic concern?
Hazelton — We have to look at the quality of jobs. It isn’t enough to put the word essential before the word job and bang a pot in honor of the workers. For most of us, the job is our economic safety net and its our health safety net because our health benefits are tied to employment. For far too many Americans, their job failed them. Either their job was shuttered or they didn’t feel safe going to work. Now we have an epidemic of folks who are burnt out.
A report from the Brookings Institution estimated 44% of all U.S. workers were low-wage workers with a median annual income of $17,950. This is the group most likely to suffer food insecurity, less likely to receive needed health care, and unable to cope with emergencies of even a few hundred dollars.
Vourvoulias — The digital divide. Healthcare is likely to continue to be delivered in hybrid form, with an increased reliance on telehealth, and that means that those without access to broadband, wifi, or those who are accessing the internet solely via mobile devices will continue to have spotty or second-class care. But it’s not only healthcare. If the pandemic taught us anything it is that those without 24/7 internet access were cut off from almost all vital civic and human services, including eviction and food aid. How to guarantee every city resident has digital access has to be part of any disaster planning across sectors starting now.
How should we deal with misinformation?
Hazelton — I believe the only way to heal our misinformation problem is to improve trust. The term I heard over and over again is trusted messengers. It may be a faith leader, a barber, a grassroots community group, a community health worker. This is an area that the public health community is going to have to develop a stronger connection with the authentic messengers in the community.
Vourvoulias — Agree about trusted messengers. And local government has to stop being willfully oblivious to what that means. The Philly Fights COVID debacle is an example. The COVID testing/vaccination messenger that folks trusted was the Black Doctors COVID Consortium, but the City chose to contract with an almost completely unknown entity to run its first mass vaccination site instead. Even if it hadn’t all fallen apart spectacularly, even if Philly Fights COVID had delivered on every promise, the choice would still speak to the City’s disconnection from the communities it most needed to reach.
What advice would you give to Philadelphian decision-makers?
Hazelton — Take preparedness more seriously. When the next crisis hits, how will we ensure people still have housing, access to healthcare, food, utilities (and broadband is a utility)? So as a region we need to define what it means to be prepared and what are the processes that need to be put in place. And we must make certain our planning and policies are inclusive. Taking care of the most vulnerable of our society should be the ultimate test of a preparedness system.
Vourvoulias — Exactly, a comprehensive plan is key. Take a cue from nonprofits and NGOs that provide immediate relief and services after major humanitarian or natural disasters. There should be a protocol in place to deal with immediate survival concerns — food and water, shelter, medical attention — for all city residents, including those who are chronically unhoused, medically fragile and those who are part of the informal economy. The plan must include secondary protocols for ensuring continued access to healthcare, education, utilities, digital access, housing, etc., after immediate survival concerns are met, as well as emergency funding that can help keep service providers and essential businesses (without access to other capital) in operation.-30-
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