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Equity and Solidarity Need to Be Central to the Coronavirus Response — Not Sidelined 

April 10, 2020

Everyone — regardless of race, class, and background — has been impacted by COVID-19. But we have not all been impacted equally. We must confront this pandemic with a laser focus on equity, prioritizing the needs of people who have been historically hardest hit by the advent of a national or global crisis. If we do not, our response to this crisis — and the next one — will fail. 

COVID-19 has smacked of inequity since its first outbreak in the Wuhan province of China. It was almost immediately dubbed a “Chinese disease,” which sparked bias and racism against Asian communities across the world. Today, many local Asian-run small businesses are still struggling with this stigma at the same time they are losing money because of social distancing recommendations. This community is among the most impacted by the crisis. 

As the virus ravages our region, the inequity continues and disproportionately impacts people who are already disadvantaged. Social distancing has proven to be an effective way to stop the spread of COVID-19, but it has already leveled significant economic damage for low-wage workers, gig workers, and others on the economy’s margins. 

While the need to continue these measures until infection rates drop is clear, we’ve closed the public facilities and libraries that are critical resources for people who are homeless. The places available for them to escape winter weather are high-risk for the spread of a virus — with shelter beds only inches apart, less than adequate hygiene options, and shared meal spaces.

Finally, we desperately need wage workers right now. Hourly employees are often the ones to take care of our most critical needs. They stock grocery shelves and serve people in restaurants, but these are exactly the people — beside frontline health workers — who face the biggest risks of being infected in coming to work. They also have the least incentive; most hourly workers do not make a living wage or have sick pay if they are infected. 

This list could go on but what’s important to recognize is that the inequitable systems we currently have in place — with gaping income disparities, a lack of affordable housing and healthcare, and dramatic disparities in access to transportation and technology — have made this challenge much tougher to address. We must strive to find equitable solutions by centering the realities of those who are hit the hardest by this crisis.   

At the Port of Seattle, I am proud to say that we have taken several critical measures to be responsive to our employees at this time and to the needs of small businesses. The Port has adopted a motion to put equity at the center of our efforts to restart our economy and our city — including an emergency financial relief for airport tenants with rent and fee deferrals, in addition to barring evictions. 

I am also proud of Seattle. We are digging deep to equitably address the crisis and moving from “me” to “we” solutions that demonstrate solidarity and build community. Seattle King County Public Health staff members have worked round-the-clock to address the most critical needs. Philanthropists and everyday people have come together under the umbrella of the Seattle Foundation to create a fund for those most in need. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkin has created a fund for small businesses to get immediate support and proposed a second fund to provide $800 in vouchers to more than 6,000 families to help them buy food, cleaning supplies, and other household goods. On Intentionalist, a website started to connect consumers to minority- and woman-owned businesses, traffic has risen five-fold in the past week. Finally, Seattle-based Author Ijeoma Oluo and other artists have created Artists Relief Fund for artists who are losing critical income due to show and event cancellations. 

It’s a strong start, and we need much more. In a public health crisis like this one, we are in this petri dish of a world together and efforts to help the most vulnerable will make us all safer. We know that tough economic times lie ahead, and our economic disparities will only deepen unless we address them directly. This critical work cannot wait until the crisis is over. 

We will get through this. If we center the needs of those most impacted, we may even get through it with a deeper understanding of why our social justice efforts are so critical, and with stronger conviction to keep them driving forward. 

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