The COVID-19 crisis has not only disrupted daily life. It has also exposed long-standing ruptures in our social fabric and the gross failure of our federal government to respond boldly in real time to save lives and the economy.
What can the city of Richmond do to repair these ruptures locally while moving our community toward greater equity?
To act locally, we must first think globally. That means rejecting framing the crisis as a simplistic trade-off between economic well-being and public health.
In fact, the nations that are now positioned to plan the reopening of their economies are precisely those that a) acted early and aggressively to implement public health measures to contain the virus and b) have strong social democratic traditions of economic solidarity and supporting the basic needs of all residents.
Here in the United States, where we still lack the mass testing needed to responsibly reopen the economy, it may take weeks, months, or even all of 2020 before we can lift the shutdown. That’s why a robust system of economic support for workers and businesses impacted by the shutdown needs to be put in place and stay in place.
To be sure, unemployment insurance has been expanded, and many Americans will get a one-time $1,200 check with Donald J. Trump’s signature on it. Small businesses have been left to scramble in hope of getting loan support from the forthcoming second round of the Paycheck Protection Program. But the federal response to date is simply inadequate to stave off massive unemployment, bankruptcies, and, for too many, desperate uncertainty.
In contrast, in the United Kingdom, workers are getting as much as 80% of their income protected for three months with likely future extensions. Similar steps have been taken throughout Western Europe, in some cases coupled with guarantees workers will keep their jobs. These policies mean public health measures can stay in place without throwing large segments of the population into poverty or destroying businesses on a mass scale.
There is no inherent reason America could not employ a similar strategy.
The collapse of the American economy and the stunningly rapid rise in unemployment and dire need is not a necessary outcome of the shutdown. It’s a political choice, rooted in decades of anti-government rhetoric and the inability of most American political leaders to imagine an ambitious program that uses the tools of government to address immediate medical needs and ensure economic survival for all.
That failure of political imagination, and unwillingness to act boldly, has resulted in thousands more deaths and widespread economic pain, both disproportionately harming African Americans.
What’s needed is a bold policy response to not only address the immediate crises — health and economic — but point us in the direction of a more equitable society. In such a society there will be no tolerance for rampant childhood poverty or unconscionable racial disparity. Health care and housing will be treated as rights rather than privileges. We’ll take seriously the idea that we are all in this together.
Much of what needs to be done can only take place at the federal level: Only the federal government has the capacity to borrow at massive scale so as to meet our immediate public health needs and ensure the economic survival of everyday Americans — and help local and state governments fill gaping budget holes — while the shutdown continues.
But state and local government also have tools and possibilities for taking bold steps.
We would love to see Richmond become a national leader in responding to the crisis in ways that move our city toward much greater social and economic inclusion. Here are a few possible steps, some of which require cooperation from the state:
1) Immediately release as many prisoners as possible from local jails, state prisons and juvenile detention centers, including nonviolent offenders, people awaiting trial, persons nearing completion of their sentences, and persons especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
2) Establish a free, citywide Wi-Fi network to allow all residents regardless of income to access the internet. Social connection is a human need and internet access needs to be considered a shared public good, like parks and libraries, that all residents can access.
3) Devise a serious plan for educational reparations for the 25,000 Richmond schoolchildren who have missed a third of an academic year and who will be out of school for almost six consecutive months. The schooling gap has the potential to cause permanent harm to our city’s children. Local leaders should craft such a plan and then demand the state and federal government fund it.
4) Make permanent the waiver of fares for riders on GRTC. We should broaden free transit rather than waste effort enforcing fares that punish city residents who will use public transit to get to work when the economy begins to reopen. Closely related, we also need to redouble efforts to connect residents to good jobs, for example, through the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building and related initiatives.
5) Build urgently needed low-income housing units at scale as quickly as possible, employing local firms that hire local residents at good wages, organized where possible as worker cooperatives or social enterprises. Such an approach could meet the city’s severe need for low-income housing, while creating good jobs and spreading wealth.
This short list can and should be added to by other community voices. We are cheered by the community-driven food resiliency projects and mutual aid efforts already underway, and we are inspired too by the Richmond Public Schools’ tireless efforts to support families in crisis.
This is a disruptive and dangerous moment in our national history, but it also has potential for needed change. There is no point trying to hold on to a rapidly vanishing status quo. That status quo was never acceptable to begin with. Change is here.
Adria Scharf is a city resident who directs a national project on employee ownership. Thad Williamson is a city resident and an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.
Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.