JP Observer: Let’s not waste the coronavirus crisis; good things can result

By Sandra Storey / Special to the Gazette

The covid-19 pandemic has been a three-month nightmare for us in Jamaica Plain and pretty much the entire world. No one knows how long it will continue to plague us. Just describing and responding to the new, invisible, travelling killer is torturous, because it affects every aspect of both our personal and public lives. 

More than 570 Boston residents have died from it and more than 12,000 have caught the highly contagious virus. As of May 14, 605 people in JP alone had caught it, according to the Boston Public Health Commission. 

Fighting the virus has left us with struggling businesses, nonprofits and individuals who suddenly lost their jobs. Meeting basic needs has become a challenge for man. We will never be the same.

Even while grieving our losses and fighting the coronavirus’s rippling effects, it’s important to heed what Rahm Emanuel said at the height of the recession in 2008: “Never allow a good crisis to go to waste.” Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff, later to become mayor of Chicago, went on to point out that crises can show us opportunities to change and improve.

“We pressed pause,” former JP resident Naomi Storm says of the shutdown and restrictions that started in early March.

So, frozen in place, we have been given a chance to reflect on life around us. vulnerabilities and injustices. Buried in all the predictions and talk of “new normal,” the one thing we know is that there will be some permanent changes as a result of covid-19. Our job is to use this time to recognize that and start make sure it’s change for the better.

One of the most promising potentials to emerge from this health crisis is the huge increase in awareness of crucial issues the covid-19 has delivered. 

  People started saying, “We are all in this together,” almost simultaneously in ironic response to the social distancing we have to do. We use it to mean groups the size of a family, a neighborhood, a state, a country, the entire world.

We certainly are all in this together, but, looking around, it becomes quickly apparent that though we are all vulnerable, we are not equal. One basic good we can take from the crisis right away is to vow to turn it into a true equalizer. We should be able to turn to our companions and say, “What happens to you on happens to me.” That can drive us to improve all of our lives.

What follows are some things I have observed we should consider doing, inspired by what has emerged so far from the tragedy. Other people are coming up with ideas for improvements, too. 

“Local” seems to be even better than we were thinking before this happened to us. Let’s keep some “extremes” we adopted for the crisis. Let’s all agree to close down the world for 10 or so days a year. Let planet earth catch its breath and again enjoy the clean air that resulted this time. 

Then let’s encourage people (tax breaks?) to choose workplaces and living spaces based more on how close they are to each other. Those long commutes have been no good for psyches, climate or economies, and they’ve been getting worse. So many people sent home to work have said not having to commute has made them surprisingly happy during this time.

Meanwhile, public transport needs to be upgraded and made safer. Very importantly, it needs to be expanded throughout the country. Those of us in old cities are used to having it, but many Americans have none. Think of how the economy and the climate would improve if people could more easily get to stores and jobs and education, as well as be able to stay home more, too.

Working from home, if done carefully and with the right jobs, can be fabulous. Let’s have more of that, mixed with some local in-person co-worker interaction, too, to promote problem solving and creativity. In-person conferences that participants must fly to should be rate. Flying should be for vacations and visits.

Improve video-conferencing and internet access for everyone. Improve the technology. Everybody deserves WiFi. Teach people skills not only in using it, but also in managing online gatherings and life-management activities on line. Make sure seniors, children, students, and people of all income levels are included.

Make sure everyone has a smart phone, at least. Better if every household can get a laptop; it already started when the City of Boston raised funds to get Boston school children computers so they could study remotely.

Let’s pay all the people we just noticed are “essential” a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour to start immediately. Who are essential employees? People who take care of other people and/or the stuff (including information) we need day to day. Government help

Supporting local, independently owned businesses will be extremely important to a positive future. They, especially restaurants, create the living rooms of our communities—the next circle past our houses and streets that pulls us together. They also bedrock the economy and employment in this country. Nonprofit organizations need to be respected as basic forces in the economy as well as people’s lives.

Meanwhile, the whole idea that the US has somehow properly evolved into a service/research and development economy and other countries like China should do the manufacturing has got to go. It’s bad for employment, economic security, and even health security to not have more manufacturing here. Things will cost more, but it will be worth it for our total economy and general well-being.

Though everyone is “in this together,” people here are much less advantaged than people from other places, we see in the covid spotlight. Of all the countries hit hard by the virus and its repercussions, the US is the only one where everyone wasn’t instantly covered by universal health care.

Workers often here aren’t guaranteed sick pay, paid leave to take care of sick family members, rights to protective gear and rules provided by employers and other rights one would expect. That needs to change, including for essential works, along with their pay.

People in the US are diverting a good deal of their incomes, too, to paying student debt instead of purchasing goods and services. Allowing billions in student debt makes no sense. We need to shift the cost of education to government more, and free up people’s incomes to be spent vibrantly, not simply “paid back” as long-term loans to some lenders. 

The incredible inequality that poverty and race brings to many of us in our layers of communities has been exposed in dramatic ways the past three months. Rather than hear from political podiums about low income people struggling to feed themselves and their families we have seen the long lines of cars waiting for hours for a free box of food.

Instead of just hearing about racial and income “disparities” in health care, we are seeing up close that people of color and low incomes are literally more vulnerable than other neighbors to the virus.

And people are donating to their fellow humans in amazing amounts—from money to food banks to face coverings for people who need them. 

The shortage of housing affordable to ordinary working people everywhere in the US has been a growing crisis for years. With the huge, sudden unemployment that’s hit, temporary measures from the CARES Act, etc., won’t help for long. We are seeing that many people sharing small houses and apartments have trouble distancing enough from one another to protect themselves.

The federal government as well as the states need to ante up more. Government has to subsidize housing to a much greater extent than it does now. No more fantasies that—unlike with other basic human needs—we can expect the private sector to shore up people’s housing costs on a permanent basis. And, just as people with SNAP (food stamps) don’t need to shop in special stores, many more housing vouchers should be “mobile” and apply to any qualified housing, as some are now.

Of all the large gatherings the pandemic has messed up, arts have done the best, even flourished, as creative types find new ways to reach the public, with some technical wizardry required at times. Plays, concerts, museum tours, poetry readings thrive on Zoom, YouTube, Facebook and TV. Let’s hope they continue even after artists and audiences are allowed back in person and that they find the funding to do it.

We don’t know yet how sports will fare without crowds of fans on hand. It’s one of hundreds of unsure futures we confront.

Video conferencing seems to have improved access to hearings and public meetings immensely. Ordinary people who may have had trouble getting to them in person due to busy schedules or transportation issues can now participate.

Ever since the crisis started, people seems to be talking more openly about mental health issues, including addiction. Maybe it’s because our crisis is health-related, or maybe because it is causing such universal public/private disruptions in our lives.

I have noted an unusual amount of public talk and writing using these words phrases: people’s sense of control, flexibility, gratitude, simplicity, resilience, patience, generosity, pace of life, anxiety, meditation, stages of grief, substance abuse, domestic violence and child neglect by government officials, media, entertainers, pundits and journalists to a great extent the past 12 weeks and in a quantity that matches the breadth and depth of the crisis. Hope that continues.

Though it should go without saying, with the slippery nature of public policy these days, I will say it: The Trump administration dumped the 69-page handbook on pandemic management and the pandemic office and plan by the National Safety Council created by the Obama administration. We need to recreate a handbook, an office, and plans to retain vigilance and preparedness after the next president is sworn in in 2021.

A lot of good, it turns out, came from the Depression, of course, including Social Security. The plague made people realize they needed to build sewer systems and install toilets. Rahm Emanuel said last week that we should be repairing roads and bridges now, while there is so little traffic that makes it expensive.

Here are just a few more good things we are already getting from covid-19: the end of loud music in restaurants some places because it leads to loud talking which spreads germs; empty animal shelters as people with more time at home adopt homeless animals; telehealth appointments; the demise of department stores.

The list can go on… and everyone can contribute to researching and bringing about positive changes they want.

Best of all, taking on the viral pandemic has given us practice and a model for thinking about and tackling the existential issue of climate change. We, all of us who are in it together, have to do it, and we know much more now how and why we can.

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