Pandemic Solidarity Transformed Our Society. Now We Need It Again.

Recently, I took a moment to reflect on how I was feeling at this point in the pandemic and, unsurprisingly, like everyone I know, it’s not great. Despite the fact that we are safer this year (we have vaccines after all!) and we are now able to see more friends and family, I feel worse than I did at the beginning of the pandemic. Everyone I know is on edge or otherwise irritated, and there’s a sense that we’re all collectively meaner. Certainly, this is the case when you look at what service staff all over the country are reporting dealing with—rude and aggressive customers resisting mask and vaccine requirements. Heath care workers are dealing with an incredible amount of violence and threats; some hospitals have distributed panic buttons in case of assault. The country is bitterly divided over masks and vaccines—particularly for children, leading to fights at school boards across the country, which have prompted boards to ask for federal protection. Thinking back to the beginning of the pandemic, when I spent days alone in my apartment in Providence, the key thing that stands out is the collective sense of solidarity that filled the air. Despite some protests against stay-at-home orders, polling from last April shows that most Americans were staying home to flatten the curve and protect our health care system. And in the name of doing so, governments at all levels began to institute a number of policies in that briefly transformed American society.

When the virus first hit the shores of the United States, we had no idea who would be most affected or how many people would die, or knew much about how the virus was transmitted—all everyone knew was that this was a deadly virus that needed to be tackled. Heeding warnings from advocates and researchers that the virus would spread through prisons like wildfire, cities and states all over the country, and even the federal government, pursued decarceration. Governors in states as different as Oklahoma, Washington, and New Jersey commuted sentences and ordered people released who were serving time for nonviolent offenses, medically vulnerable, or slated to be released soon. The federal government released 4,000 people to serve the rest of their sentences through home confinement. Of course, some of this was forced by external pressure—after a lawsuit by the NAACP about prison conditions, in February 2021, North Carolina released 3,500 people from their state prisons. But all of this had an impact on the prison population in 2020, which, according to the Census Bureau, resulted in a 13 percent drop compared to the 2010 Census.

Decisive action was taken to keep people housed and to get people housing—since evictions and congregate shelters contributed to the spread of the virus. In addition to a series of eviction moratoriums imposed by the CDC and state and local governments that kept many people housed, cities like Los Angeles and New York City launched programs to provide housing via hotel rooms. The pandemic also saw a rapid expansion of the social safety net through the CARES Act, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and provisions in the American Rescue Plan. This included paid sick leave provisions, extended unemployment benefits, a child tax credit, and rental assistance, among other things. In addition to this, federal agencies have also taken steps to lessen hardship—the FCC has offered poor families a $50 broadband subsidy to provide Internet access, and the USDA has extended its program to provide free lunch to all students through the 2021–22 school year. Student loan payments have been paused. All of this has had the impact of significantly reducing poverty in 2020, and child poverty in the United States has dropped significantly.

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