Together, over the past seven weeks, we have successfully battled this obvious yet invisible viral opponent. By the end of April, there were 581 COVID-19 deaths and 2,416 hospitalizations among 8.54 million Virginians; 5,181 hospital beds were available along with 2,953 ventilators; and Virginia’s health care system has adequate capacity. Regrettably, many Virginians face another contagion called despair that might be as deadly as any virus.
More than 500,000 Virginians have lost jobs. Others, while still employed, have experienced dramatic wage cuts. Large numbers of independent contractors have no income, limited access to unemployment benefits and still await federal aid. Nationally, low-income workers (making less than $37,000) are at the greatest risk of COVID-19 layoffs, and nearly half report they might not be able to pay their bills.
Who is speaking for low-income Virginians bearing the burden of this economic tragedy? This nearly rhetorical question has not been effectively answered by our leaders.
Since the March 16 retreat into our homes, the collective faithful in my church tradition have offered weekly short devotions during our time of morning prayer. Among these inspirational moments is the following supplication:
V. Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
R. Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.
This call and response begs our leaders to more earnestly consider low-income Virginia families with no safety net. It is time to give them hope.
A sustained shutdown has the potential to reduce the hope of the poor and further entrench its devastating cycles, increase dependence on government, grow the divide among the haves and the have-nots, and worst of all, begin to eliminate the belief that one can rise up from the conditions of birth to achievement.
Adulfa Garcia, whose taco business is on Jefferson Davis Highway, is struggling to survive. In a recent edition of the RTD, she said, “It’s difficult. You come and hope that the day will provide enough sales to maintain your family. I’m doing this out of necessity. The necessity to fight for my family, my children.”
Garcia represents thousands of low-income Virginians with limited or no job prospects, no savings and no safety net. What effect will a sustained shutdown or prolonged reopening have on her? Vital housing, health care, social services, job training and education programs might be cut in state and local budgets, and they might not be restored for years.
For Virginians with jobs, homes, health insurance, cash in the bank or other attributes of security, a shutdown or extended phasing is and will continue to be uncomfortable, or even painful, but bearable. Conversely, the impact of a long, drawn-out reopening of the economy will be quite different for poorer Virginians who have lost jobs and were struggling prior to the pandemic.
Hundreds of thousands of dignified working-class Virginians now wait for unemployment and relief checks, line up at food banks and pray they will not be evicted. Their children have meager or zero online school instruction, limited school lunch, no afterschool programs, and health care needs — including vaccinations — that are not being addressed. SNAP benefits don’t even cover the same amount of food because of supply chain interruptions.
As many as one-third of Virginia renters might not be able to pay their rent and sustain housing — a fundamental building block of wealth. Do we not have the moral and ethical imperative to clearly, succinctly and immediately outline a safe reopening? The choice is self-evident. COVID-19 restrictions need to retreat.
Gov. Ralph Northam is finalizing a blueprint to lift restrictions in phases, “track and trace” and “box in” new cases. This plan is only part of the long-term solution; it cannot be the only approach. Using positive test results to determine when the shutdown should be lifted naturally will lead to increases in the reported number of positive tests. This report is then used to justify an extended shutdown or prolonged phasing. I urge caution here.
Our most vulnerable, poor citizens cannot endure economic, educational and social hardships for much longer. For their sake, a clear, safe, effective and efficient reopening process must begin now. The political debate should not be a Hobson’s choice: “COVID-19 shutdown equals Great Depression” or “reopen will lead to mass casualties.” Are we not able to track, trace and contain COVID-19, and safely reopen the commonwealth?
If Virginia Republicans and Democrats support and refine this plan — and resist false choices presented by national political partisans — Virginians can unite behind a path that allows for a safer return to school and work. We have done this before. When I was in the House of Delegates, I voted to expand health care access for low-income Virginians, among a minority of Republicans to do so. While that vote cost me an election, it was the right thing to do because our government has an obligation to care for our most vulnerable and poorest citizens. That is true now more than ever.