Pathways for Pathogens
Wednesday, December 23, 2020
PATHWAYS FOR PATHOGENS: Admittedly in plain view the entire time, the Year of COVID has nevertheless peeled back the veil of our shattered social network and the fragility of our most vulnerable communities—the people who must work for bread, whether they’re sick or well; the people with kids to feed who can’t afford to stay home; who depend on public transportation and have limited housing security, and who take the virus with them to new communities where it then may spread further. They’re also the most at-risk, with limited access to health care and who suffer from generational traumas and inherited ailments, often as a result of systemic racial and social inequities. And they are—with good reason—less trustful of the smiling assurances of government and health professionals than more advantaged communities.
“Particularly in communities of color—African-American, Native American and Latinx individuals—they’re much more likely to be exposed to the virus and get sick,” Georges Benjamin, MD, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, admitted at the national rollout of the first COVID-19 vaccine last week.
The stark reality is our society cannot fix the crisis of COVID without in tandem the much larger, deeper and durable aspects of social justice reform. Solutions to the latter feed directly into relieving the pandemic crisis.
Gov. Jay Inlsee rolled out the details of his 2021-2023 biennial budget proposal last week, which includes significant funding for public health, economic supports for workers and businesses, and other services that Washingtonians need to recover from the impacts of COVID-19.
“We must invest in the relief, recovery and resilience of Washington. We cannot cut the things that we need most during a pandemic,” Inslee said during a press conference. “In my proposed operating, capital and transportation budgets, I am investing in the people of our state.”
Inslee stressed the need to rebuild the state’s economy and continue efforts to support households, students, workers and businesses impacted by the pandemic.
The governor’s budget offers funding to shore up the state’s unemployment system, which was put under strain due to staggering job losses, particularly during the first months of the pandemic. Inslee proposes legislation that would ease unemployment insurance rate increases on businesses and increase minimum weekly benefit amounts for unemployed workers.
The unifying core of his proposals were released in a separate news conference last week, as the governor announced a historic equity policy package for the upcoming 2021 legislative session. For the first time, the governor directed state agencies to center budgetary decision packages and legislation around equity. His $365 million proposal includes $2.5 million in funding to establish a new office to develop and implement a five-year policy plan to assist agencies in developing their own diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) plans.
“The proposed investments follow an unprecedented year that exposed the inequities that communities of color have faced for generations,” the governor’s office noted in a statement. “These proposals showcase Washington’s commitment to not just changing policies affecting these communities but investing in them as well.”
“We have seen Black, indigenous and other people of color disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 because of longstanding racial gaps, all of which have as a root cause—racism,” Inslee said. “Now is the time to implement real change that will have a positive impact on the lives of those most impacted by this crisis.
“I firmly believe Washington will be an anti-racist state, and I will be taking actions that hold our state to that commitment,” the governor said.
“Becoming one of the first states in the nation to establish a statewide Office of Equity was no small feat,” admitted Rep. Mia Gregerson, the south Seattle Democrat who introduced the bill creating the office. The bill was supported by Debra Lekanoff and Alex Ramel in the 40th Legislative Districts and Sharon Shewmake in Whatcom’s 42nd District, among other Democrats.
Early in the new year, Democratic lawmakers are preparing to introduce legislation on policing and law enforcement accountability, which will include Inslee’s proposal to create an Office of Independent Investigations. That office would be established in the executive branch, and an advisory board would give input into how the office is staffed and run. Inslee’s proposal would dedicate $26 million to set up the office, and pay for any resulting prosecutions.
An earlier effort toward equity was passed by the Legislature in 2019 that sought to restore many of the goals of affirmative action. Voters narrowly rejected the referendum in 2019 by less than one point (it passed in Whatcom County). That made Referendum 88 one of the most closely decided ballot measures in recent times and left affirmative-action advocates weighing how they might still achieve at least some of their goals. In the intervening months, racial and social unrest has pointedly escalated, and along with it troubling and lethal incidents of police violence.
That unease is unlikely to fade as the pandemic renews its grip on the Pacific Northwest while residents continue to chafe at the tiresome but necessary social restrictions to contain it. The COVID pathogen itself is more symptom than cause of our society’s aliments, and the body of our republic’s immune system has seldom been weaker. As we enter the third decade of the nation’s third century, the debris of the past continues to pile up and drag down our future.