For us, policy and politics are personal. In each day’s latest numbers of COVID-19 cases in Boston, we see families grieving a sudden loss, facing food and housing insecurity, and worrying about their kids’ education. This feels all too familiar. We grew up in those families, in multilingual communities who represent the resilience and sacrifice of the American Dream. And we know that our communities, now bearing the burden of this pandemic, have been bearing the brunt of systemic inequities since long before COVID-19. Our communities have been in crisis mode for generations. Now is the moment to define a better post-pandemic world that can come about only through an equitable and just recovery.
With coronavirus cases and fatalities surging to a peak this week, Boston is at a turning point. Our health care system is under strain as nurses, first responders, and doctors rush to save lives — with limited hospital beds, ventilators, and personal protective equipment. We are also in an economic free-fall that threatens to deepen inequities for the very communities who are overrepresented in infections and fatalities.
But the conditions we face now were shaped through actions — and inaction — from long before this crisis. Preexisting disparities created by generations of systemic injustices have taken on life-and-death stakes. In Boston, residents of color are taking a triple hit from the coronavirus — not just bearing the brunt of the health impacts, but also facing the greatest economic instability caused by the pandemic and the highest barriers to receiving relief.
The coronavirus breakdown is getting lost in translation. It’s our job as local officials to lead by example for our communities, who have been systematically left out of crucial communications since this crisis has started.
So as the pandemic reshapes the scale of what is possible when we marshal the political will to confront a crisis, we must also address the other crises that our communities have been facing. Unlike COVID-19, these are not sudden shocks, but rather slow violences allowed to continue because we have chosen not to act and, in many cases, have even institutionalized the injustices: climate change, gun violence, inequality. To create more livable communities for all residents, to deliver resources and policy change where the need is greatest, the recovery must be local.
That starts from a baseline of direct access through culturally competent, multilingual outreach. More than 111,000 Bostonians speak English “less than very well.” With many sources of relief given out on a first-come-first-served basis, city government must be proactive in anticipating and eliminating barriers to access. Planning for long-term recovery must include how we as a city communicate in ways that are culturally responsive and timely for all residents.
Most of all, these decisions must be not only accessible to but also driven by community voices. That is why together we are convening a City Council hearing Thursday to plan for an equitable recovery from COVID-19, a first step in formulating a comprehensive, community-driven policy response and exercising our critical oversight role. We will work with community members to envision an inclusive process for implementation, evaluate the city’s response so far, and commit to holding ourselves accountable. Even as the public health and economic landscapes continue to evolve, we should be establishing priorities and metrics for an equitable recovery.
COVID-19 is devastating even beyond the direct health and economic impacts, because the pandemic forces us to isolate. Distanced and separated, we must find new ways to build community, engage in activism, and comfort one another. When even our democratic processes are at risk, government officials must focus even more on eliminating barriers, closing information gaps, and collaborating closely with the community.
In the face of a worldwide crisis, Boston can create a comprehensive blueprint for an equitable COVID-19 recovery that addresses a long legacy of racial and economic disparities, delivers a more prosperous future for all families, and builds a resilient and sustainable city.
Michelle Wu, Julia Mejia, and Ricardo Arroyo are Boston city councilors.