There are lots of ways to characterize 2020, many of them not suitable for a family newspaper. Here’s one description that is: It was a learning experience.
The coronavirus pandemic’s upheaval revealed some hard, painful realities, things that some of us knew all along and others didn’t, but should have. High on the list is that the safety net meant to protect people in times of need has too many holes.
Some of what we’ve learned has spurred real, productive and long-term action.
After watching students struggle to keep up with online school due to inadequate internet access, it’s heartening to see a new focus on expanding broadband. Closing the digital divide will help kids from all backgrounds succeed long after the current emergency passes.
Also drawing overdue attention is the presence of health disparities between people of different races. This is not new information, but it’s been tragically highlighted by the virus' disparate toll across racial lines. Researchers and public health officials are now vowing to study and address the issue with a new fervor that should improve outcomes and save lives well beyond the pandemic.
Yet there are other longstanding problems that briefly caught policy makers’ attention, then dropped off the radar once short-term aid arrived.
One is the impact of unevenly available paid sick leave for many lower-paid workers, which early on led people who might have been infected to go to work because they couldn’t afford not to. This harmed them in obvious ways, but it also put those they encountered at risk.
Another is the shockingly low unemployment benefit in Louisiana. Absent the sort of federal subsidy that’s only going to arrive under extreme circumstances, the maximum weekly benefit tops out at $247, among the lowest in the nation. Leave aside whether the $600 a week the feds kicked for a time was the correct amount; without subsidy, the payout is just too paltry to help many recipients avoid crisis. The program, as structured, also leaves out too many who are not in traditional employer/employee relationships.
Both of these problems were widely discussed last spring, before Congress passed temporary sick leave policies and unemployment subsidies (the new relief bill includes less generous provisions to address both needs, again temporarily).
But at some point COVID-19 will be behind us and the structural challenges will remain. There will always be people who get seriously ill and need time off, or who lose jobs through no fault of their own. Pandemic or not, neither circumstance should result in financial devastation, particularly for those who do work that we’ve come to call essential.
At the start of last year, none of us knew the difficulties that awaited us. Now that our eyes are wide open, we’ve got the chance to enact policies to help everyone weather whatever 2021, and beyond, have in store. What a shame it would be to let the opportunity pass.