Lessons to learn from the pandemic

For providers, access, collaboration, and commitment are key

WHEN THE PANDEMIC passes, what then?  What will we do differently to expand opportunity to the most vulnerable and hardest hit?

We’ve seen the disparities.  Black Americans are 2.6 times more likely to get COVID-19 and more than two times more likely to die from it than white Americans, the Centers for Disease Control reports. Low-income residents and people of color have been the first to get sick and the first to lose their jobs, housing, and food security.

There is also a new and justified fear of work.  Single parents worry who will take care of their children if they get sick or die. What will they do if everyone gets sick in a multi-generational household? The unfortunate reality is that most often, lower income homes don’t have the space to social distance that many of us take for granted. They don’t have jobs where they can work from home or pods for their kids’ home-schooling. The most vulnerable have been forced to make it on their own and to rely on food pantries and church supports or, more cruelly, to simply fail in the world’s richest nation.

Now that these stark inequities have been exposed by COVID-19, pretending to be blind to them or accepting them would be immoral. But how do we move forward?  How can we hold ourselves and our social systems accountable?

As director of a small, community-based program that helps low-income residents, primarily African Americans, find and keep jobs, I see firsthand the many barriers that people face. Among them are extreme poverty, criminal records, lack of a high school diploma, no vocational skills or training, and, significantly, a lack of hope born of years of well documented structural racism and systemic indifference.

How can we as a society best support these individuals and families?

Here are some learnings from the pandemic that I hope we can replicate and expand upon.

Improved access to critical services: Virtual access to programming has allowed us to enhance and broaden the delivery of our program’s services. At the tactical level, our transition to the virtual environment has resulted in serving youth from rival neighborhoods, laying the groundwork for peaceful interactions in the future.

Adults find that transportation and child-care issues are easier to address when services are delivered virtually. This is a model that should continue and expand.

No wrong door – a continuum of services:  Why shouldn’t various agencies collaborate to seal the gaps in the delivery of critical services? We are a community-based organization with a long track record of supporting communities of color. We build trusting relationships with our clients on their journey to a life of self-sufficiency and the launch of meaningful careers. But it doesn’t make sense for us to develop the technical expertise for vocational training in multiple sectors when organizations like Jewish Vocational Service and BEST Training Center provide that.  We are cultivating partnerships with other organizations that excel at meeting a variety of our clients’ needs, and it would be helpful if other social service programs did the same thing. Clients could then reach out to a variety of organizations that assess their needs and refer them to the best program for their goals.

In addition, this could help address funding that has historically pitted one agency against another to secure scarce resources. We need to end the “winner takes all” construct tht has contributed to the gaps in the delivery of services to low-wage workers and job seekers that a more cooperative and complementary approach would avoid.

 A commitment to all:  Lastly, how can we ensure that everyone has access to opportunity?  What can we do to reduce racial inequality and disparities?  As a city and state we have begun this hard work, but it is a long way from being over. Continued review of policies, systems, and institutions regarding criminal justice and police practices, access to quality health care and mental health supports, access to safe and habitable housing, and access to career and technical education that take into account the issues of the most vulnerable are urgently needed.

Let’s commit to continuing this hard work in 2021 and beyond.  Let’s work on a vaccine for racial injustice with the same intensity as the one for COVID.  Let’s reimagine the future.

Ed Powell is executive director of STRIVE Boston and vice president of community engagement at the Justice Resource Institute.