On earth, we don’t get a global pandemic coupled with social distancing leading to an economic free fall every day. What we did get everyday in the United States, right up until COVID-19 was found menacing, was a society with a long history of social injustice, with wide gaps in access to vital services for surviving and thriving. We also lived with epidemic rates of childhood trauma, abuse and neglect — most flying under the radar of child welfare and, while known to school staff, accepted as a truly sad but inevitable part of many students’ lives.
Three-plus months into full alert with face masks in place, what have we learned about our nation and the city we live in? Are we willing to challenge some of our assumptions about just how fair and caring our society is? Deadly viruses and mortality have a way of giving us pause to reflect, lifting a veil to reveal some harsh realities. If you choose to take a sober look, read on.
Reality vs Fantasy
Consider how things are, rather than how we assume they might be.
- The COVID-19 pandemic: A viral pandemic is still revealing its magnitude and severity. What we know is that when the next, more lethal virus appears, every city in the nation will be woefully unprepared.
- Local economic disruption: A freezing of entire industries as we entered into prudent self-distancing created an economic downturn of unknown proportions. What we know is that if unemployment benefits end, large percentages of the populations will be without a livelihood in a marketplace where jobs don’t exist. Like weather reports, we should be getting local data on business closures and how many people need jobs (not vague stats from the feds).
- Lack of capacity: Lack of government and non-governmental infrastructure impact our capacity to address the growing demand for assistance in services for surviving like medical care, mental health care, food, housing and transport to services. We know from our countywide surveys that significant percentages of our parents can’t access vital services for a variety of reasons. If you wonder why families struggle daily and how woefully under-resourced your county is, we have a useful survey for you to implement.
- Existing challenges increase: Long-standing health and safety challenges are increased by the pandemic, social isolation and economic disruption, including adverse childhood experiences, trauma, maltreatment, domestic violence and substance misuse — all requiring local community services. Here we arrive back to where we were before COVID-19, with historical disparities, injustices, and our children enduring up to tens forms of abuse and neglect as their parents struggle without help.
- Digital divide: Large segments of populations are without access to online resources: telemedicine, options for working remotely, and online education and training options. We know we are a two-class society in regards to tech, with those who can and those who can’t access vital information, help and resources online.
- Emergency response requires alignment: County, city and community agencies, including emergency management, struggle to coordinate in times of emergency to meet the urgent needs of residents. What we know is that when the next public health crisis (or crises) hits — possibly something bigger and more lethal — our coordinated emergency response, from state to county to city government, won’t be ready to ensure everyone’s safety and stability.
- Local leaders facing unprecedented problems: Elected leaders in city, county and school government face unprecedented challenges. Government, across the board, is lacking a data-driven coordinated process of problem-solving. Hunches and political whim, not data and research, guide many multi-million dollar state and local government policies and initiatives. In an era of colliding crises that won’t be going away, we need local leadership to use data to identify and solve challenges, amid the urgent need for both a short-term response and long-term recovery.
The bottom line is that while the well-resourced class spent the last two decades enjoying tech advances and creating comfortable middle class and upper class lives, we forgot that we left so many behind to struggle daily. While some of us certainly cared, we didn’t demand that local governments ensure the vital services for surviving and thriving for everyone. Our long standing cultural norm is that people should fix themselves, with or without services and supports. Anyone with even cursory awareness of the social determinants of health, health disparities, centuries of racism and classism, and the way childhood trauma diminishes us, knows we have stacked the deck against many.
Truth be told, yesterday’s elected leaders were not elected to create a seamless system of care to empower 100% of the population in their cities and rural towns. Tomorrow’s leaders could be.
I hear people wishing we could all get back to normal. If your normal life was filled with resources, safety and respect, that makes sense. You had better just hope nothing more deadly, virus-wise, arrives at your home, workplace, school, grocery store or plane ride. Hope you stay healthy. Hope that you get to keep your job. Hope the schools function.
We don’t have to be a nation living on hope. We can instead be a nation that finally builds the services that keep us stable in times of uncertainty. And this is what we can do city by city, as no president of any party is going to be fixing the mess we’re in.
You. Us. Them.
The seven colliding challenges listed above are not going away, at least not without mobilizing, advocacy and incessant demands for social justice and timely access to medical care, food, housing, and an education system that produces literate and job-ready graduates. This is work each of us can commit to on the local level with our neighbors and those who work at city hall.
What we require are visionary mayors, council members and county commissioners to commit to doing the infrastructure-building to make the services for surviving and thriving for all residents the measurable and meaningful goal of government. If you are wondering how this could be done, we have the model called the 100% Community* and framework to do this in your county and in each of the 3000+ counties across the nation.
We have, collectively, had cold water thrown on our faces. A pandemic and economic free fall are staring us right in the eyes. Do we have the political will and commitment to social justice to guide us toward a fairer future when 100% thrive? Or do we need something far more disruptive and lethal to wake us out of our complacency?
*The future is what we make it. Join the evolution.
Please excuse any typos as I construct an article at 3am on only one cup of Joe. These stories are mine and mine alone. I do not represent any organization here. If one of my illustrations looks like a real human or three-headed hydra, that’s total coincidence. Words and images ©Dominic Cappello but share with everyone you know. Questions? The Plan Forward awaits you here: www.tenvitalservices.org