Last week marked one month since the coronavirus state of emergency was declared in Massachusetts. In that time, state government has been fighting this public health battle with one hand behind its back.
Governor Charlie Baker and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders have done an admirable (though not perfect) job so far establishing a COVID-19 Response Command Center, advising people to stay at home, redeploying health care resources, fighting for and distributing scarce personal protective equipment for health care workers, and coordinating field hospitals for the surge. It’s past time for the Legislature to step up with the same kind of urgency.
In order to provide the strong, comprehensive, compassionate response that the Commonwealth requires, the Legislature needs to be up and running. It needs to find a way to convene remotely.
There are time-sensitive, life-and-death issues that have been silently accumulating over the past month that the executive branch can’t or won’t address alone. Chief among these: the fact that low-income and minority populations will absorb a vastly disproportionate amount of the suffering and death caused by this crisis if we don’t do something different, fast.
Consider the choices residents have been confronting:
▪ The single parent with no income who must decide whether to take her young children on public transportation a few times each week to a meal distribution site, though they’ll touch every surface, or leaving them at home — alone.
▪ The undocumented food delivery worker who has a fever and weighs which is more dangerous: not getting tested or getting deported and being murdered or forced into a gang.
▪ Or the minimum-wage earner who has $7 left on his cell phone service this month and must choose between applying for housing assistance, checking on his elderly mother, or accessing his children’s online school assignments.
And then there are the choices some won’t get. If you’re 64 years old with diabetes — a condition you’re much more likely to have if you’re Black — will there be a ventilator for you if you need one?
These individual quandaries accumulate into damning, yet totally predictable trends: higher rates of coronavirus infection in predominantly poor and immigrant communities and disproportionate death rates for Black Americans across the country. And that’s to say nothing of the increased exposure to malnutrition, educational deficits, violence, and financial ruin they will face during and after the pandemic.
And yet, while these time bombs have been ticking, the Legislature has been operating with only “informal sessions” — sessions with only a few members present, and where only noncontroversial matters may be taken up. Informals have allowed us to get valuable low-hanging fruit items done quickly, like waiving the one-week waiting period to access unemployment insurance and sending a first wave of $15 million for emergency public health response. But our first legislative action geared toward the poor and the marginalized — a moratorium on foreclosures and nonessential evictions —wasn’t taken up by both the House and Senate until a month into the crisis. And, as of Wednesday morning, it still hasn’t made it to the governor’s desk. It is taking us more than a month to achieve “consensus” on a bill that doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime. That should be an indication of how likely it is we’ll achieve bolder solutions through the same channels.
To fulfill the Legislature’s duty to serve, represent, and protect people during this crisis, we’re going to have to confront decisions that are difficult and therefore controversial, and people are going to disagree. That’s not a failure on anyone’s part. This is why we have a legislature: to be able to arrive at decisions that are both critical and controversial. If we’re waiting for consensus, we’re waiting too long. Consensus is a luxury for politicians that poor and minority residents can’t afford.
The good news is there are things we can do to blunt the impact of those time bombs.
Faster economic assistance for those living on the margins. Just as the Legislature put that initial tranche of funding into our public health system in mid-March — even without knowing all the details about how this crisis would unfold — so should we have done with our economic safety net. It’s not too late. Though help has been committed by the federal government, those dollars haven’t hit the streets yet, and when they do, there will be holes in the aid. The Legislature needs to make a modest draw on the Rainy Day Fund to get money out onto the street immediately. This could be done by flexible basic income checks or expansion of existing targeted programs like RAFT, TAFDC, and Lifeline. Low-income heads of household should be agents of solution, not victims.
Insist on better race/ethnicity data collection at all points, from testing through deaths. Disclose it all, even if imperfect, daily.
Don’t use factors with inherent racial, economic, or disability bias in the rationing of crisis health care. To paraphrase our colleague and ER doctor state Representative Jon Santiago: Reserving ventilators for people who were born on the good side of disparities in asthma, diabetes, and heart disease is the definition of structural racism and classism. Medical professionals who live and work at the intersection of health care and race are working up fairer crisis standards of care. Hopefully it won’t require an action by the Legislature for the Department of Public Health and hospitals to use them. But if it comes to that, the Massachusetts Legislature needs to have the capacity in place to correct this highly time-sensitive injustice.
When we don’t make decisions, we in fact are making a decision not to help some people. We implore our institution to get more fully into this fight, and to employ technology to convene formal, transparent debate and votes. Beating the coronavirus and the structural inequities that exacerbate it requires all hands on deck.
Massachusetts Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz represents the Second Suffolk district. State Representative Maria Robinson represents the Sixth Middlesex district. State Representative Liz Miranda represents the Fifth Suffolk district.