Read about our work on COVID-19 here.
We won’t forget living through this time. Almost two million Americans have been infected with COVID-19; more than 110,000 lives have been lost. There have been protests in our streets: For safer conditions for essential workers and for more just treatment of Black lives. We could say that it is a period of great change and upheaval. But I would counter that and say, that in many ways, things have not changed much at all. Instead, the public health crisis we find ourselves in has simply unmasked our country’s weaknesses and strengths.
The COVID-19 crisis has revealed …
We need to better protect our vulnerable communities.
In the three months since Washington State declared a state of emergency because of COVID-19, response efforts shined a light on the fact that some communities are more vulnerable than others when a crisis hits. The response also showed us that our government, our society, and our health care systems do not do enough to protect all people.
We need to be better about protecting people of color, who are disproportionately infected and dying of COVID-19. Hispanic and Latino populations in Yakima County in Washington, for example, have borne 64% of the county’s COVID-19 infections; some Latino communities have an infection rate nine times higher than the state average. As they performed the essential jobs of food production for the rest of the state, migrant workers protested for safer working and living conditions and brought these numbers to light. There are myriad examples like this throughout the country, including the fact that African-American deaths from COVID-19 are nearly twice as high as would be expected, given their proportion of the population.
Unfortunately, this comes as no surprise – people of color in the United States experienced disproportionately poor health outcomes even before the pandemic hit, and there is work to be done to address the underlying racial disparities that have always existed.
The stay-at-home orders forced the closure of restaurants, bars, boutique shops, and locally-owned coffee shops (a source of pride for the Pacific Northwest). These places are, at their heart, why many of us live in cities—for the ability to walk from our homes and enjoy the local flavor of the small businesses that make a place our neighborhood. Now, most are shut down—some temporarily and some, unfortunately, permanently.
Local and federal policies do not provide enough protection for small business owners or their employees. A new federal paid leave policy for people who need to care for sick relatives or children whose schools closed is a start. But more needs to be done. People lost their livelihoods and many have subsequently lost their ability to pay rent or afford medical expenses. We need better social safety nets and policies to protect the people who keep our cities running and thriving.
More needs to be done, as well, to protect those most vulnerable during public health crises. As stay-at-home orders extended for months throughout much of the country, people understandably felt the stir craziness of being holed up, away from others for months. When people began venturing out into the world again, many balked at requirements to wear masks and practice social distancing. In moments like this, it is important to bear in mind that these precautions are in place to protect the most vulnerable among us—the elderly, the immunocompromised, those with pre-existing illnesses. When you are #MaskingForAFriend, you are protecting these groups. Even as the country returns to “normal,” these practices will be necessary for the foreseeable future; they are an important and relatively easy act we can all take part in to protect our most vulnerable community members.
Among us, there are people willing to fight, even if unnoticed or unappreciated.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, nurses, doctors, technicians, and custodians have tirelessly worked to treat and care for COVID-19 patients. They have done so at great risk to themselves and the people they live with. They have done so with inadequate equipment and protective gear. Yet they continue on.
Scientists and physicians around the world have worked relentlessly to urge people to take public health precautions seriously. This includes promoting the mundane task of handwashing to advocating for the once abstract term ¬“social distancing.” To reach the average citizen, the World Health Organization (WHO) spent many resources sharing this kind of public health information.
Since the early days of the outbreak, WHO’s epidemiologists and technicians worked non-stop to uncover and share the data needed to properly prevent, detect, and treat COVID-19 infections. WHO also rallied and coordinated the global development of effective COVID-19 vaccine and treatments. The agency continues to act as the world’s public health agency, despite being at the center of geoepolitical disputes.
We were not prepared for this outbreak. But we can be ready for the next one.
What can we do?
We can advocate for improved resources and planning related to outbreak preparedness at the local, national, and global levels. This requires more funding and more political will. We must also work to address the inequalities that underlie the immediate emergency of COVID-19 including, among others: Systemic racial injustices that create disproportionate health outcomes for people of color, a poor social safety net that puts people in a precarious positions when their jobs disappear, and the lack of adequate paid family & medical leave policies.
These are not easy tasks, but they are important. We need to take the lessons we’ve learned over the past few months and use them to prepare for the next public health crisis and then reimagine and rebuild a better world for us all.