We need a new post-pandemic ‘normal’

Let's not revert to the status quo of inequities that existed before COVID

AFTER MORE THAN a year of restrictions, Massachusetts is returning to something like normal. But the pandemic has made it painfully clear that, for many people, “normal” was never just or equitable. From disparities in public health, cruelty in the criminal legal system, and barriers to voting in elections, COVID-19 revealed as many problems in our society as it caused.

Tempting as it may be to forget the past few months, we should use what the pandemic has taught us in order to build something better than “normal.” As lawmakers are faced with a new deadline to address COVID-related rules, here are some civil rights and civil liberties lessons to keep in mind:

Lesson #1: Democracy works best when all of us are able to engage. In 2020, Massachusetts lawmakers acted quickly to ensure voters would not be forced to choose between their health and voting rights. Beacon Hill swiftly passed legislation to temporarily enable widespread voting by mail. The result: A record statewide turnout in November 2020, with most ballots being cast early or by mail.

Now, lawmakers have the opportunity to make permanent many of the short-term reforms implemented for elections during the pandemic, including mail ballots and early voting options, and to lead the way forward with other reforms such as same-day registration and better access to the ballot for eligible incarcerated voters. It’s simple: Democracy works best when all eligible voters can cast their ballot freely and fairly.

Just as important as access to elections is the ability to follow and engage with our state and local government. Last year, many cities and municipalities around Massachusetts moved their meetings online and allowed public comment by Zoom. Virtual participation options for public meetings makes local government more accessible for residents with disabilities, family and work obligations, or limited access to transportation. As state agencies and city halls begin to reopen, access to public meetings should never again hinge on a person’s physical mobility, or their ability to afford a car, get time off work, or find a care provider.

Boston City Councilors Lydia Edwards and Liz Breadon have already introduced an ordinance that would permanently allow residents to participate virtually in public meetings. And on Beacon Hill, Rep. Denise Garlick and Sen. Jason Lewis have proposed a bill that would make permanent Gov. Baker’s executive order that allowed virtual access to public meetings. Lawmakers must swiftly pass these reforms. As Councilor Edwards observed, “The inaccessibility of most government meetings is a pre-pandemic inequity that we can’t go back to.”

Lesson #2: It’s time to reimagine public safety—with a public health lens. Since the start of the pandemic, public health experts have sounded the alarm on COVID-19 in prisons and jails. Once a contagious illness enters, conditions in correctional facilities are highly conducive to it spreading. In Massachusetts, correctional facilities have continuously failed to take even the most basic life-saving measures to protect incarcerated people from infection—and those failures resulted in the deaths of at least 23 incarcerated people.

For the last year, the ACLU and other organizations have been in court—virtually—to protect the health and safety of incarcerated people in Massachusetts. To date, our litigation has resulted in the release of over 4,200 people—including nearly 3,900 people who were confined simply because they could not pay bail. Other lawsuits have forced sheriffs to ensure ICE detention centers are as empty and safe as possible.

Early nationwide analysis—including data from Boston—shows the reduction in jail population was functionally unrelated to crime trends in the following months. In fact, in nearly every city explored, fewer crimes occurred between March and May in 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019, regardless of the magnitude of the difference in jail population.

COVID-19 remains a serious concern in prisons and jails that must be addressed. But let’s be clear: Mass incarceration was already a public health crisis. Far too many people are incarcerated in conditions that threaten their health, safety, and human dignity on a daily basis. From providing adequate mental health care to ensuring access to life-saving medication, Massachusetts officials must do more to spare the lives of people in jails and prisons. And above all, Massachusetts must continue to downsize the footprint of its criminal legal system for the sake of public health and justice.

And that brings us to Lesson #3: We cannot ignore persistent racial disparities—in all parts of society. Since the onset of the pandemic, COVID-19 has disproportionately devastated Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian communities. The racial disparities in hospitalization and death rates among these groups are mirrored in vaccination rate data: Even as the state moves toward reopening, vaccination disparities persist across race and ethnicity.

Meet the Author

Carol Rose

Guest Contributor

About Carol Rose

Executive Director, ACLU of Massachusetts

About Carol Rose

Executive Director, ACLU of Massachusetts

This is perhaps the most profound lesson that COVID-19 has reinforced: To build a more just nation, we must dismantle laws and practices that harm and exclude Black people and those from other communities of color. Whether these inequities show up in our health care system, our carceral system, or our elections, they are symptoms of the same chronic disease of systemic racism. We need a more holistic approach to root out entrenched systems of racism and inequality in order to move our democracy and our society forward into a post-pandemic world in which all of us can be safe and free.

Carol Rose is the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.