This Covid-19 crisis will end. Of that, there is no doubt. Whether it is on April 30th as the President has declared or another date, later down the road, as more cautious medical experts have suggested, we will emerge from quarantine.
The critical question we must begin to face now is not when but how will this end.
When Pennsylvania reopens for business as usual, will we exit from our homes a stronger populace, more robust and healthier or weakened, traumatized and despairing? I don’t mean this in merely physical or even economic terms, although both are critically important and are dominating the news cycle.
I’m arguing that we must pay attention to our state’s wellbeing. How resilient are each of our communities?
Facing the unknowns that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought into our lives is leaving all of us emotionally frayed and fearful. As head of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, I know the problems a community suffers when fear and despair infiltrates and hate is allowed to fester. We begin to turn on each other.
The UN defines a natural disaster as “the consequences of events triggered by natural hazards that overwhelm local response capacity and seriously affect the social and economic development of a region.” Covid-19 fits the bill. We relish stories that show a disaster bringing out the best in community members. Unfortunately, disasters also bring out our worst, as we have seen with Covid-19 xenophobic-fueled violence.
The President’s backtracking on calling Covid-19 the Chinese virus came too late to arrest the harm that infected communities and may last long after the physical effects of the virus itself is gone.
Without thoughtful intervention, social recovery from Covid-19 will be slow, painful and conflict-laden. Moreover, as the government begins to remove its support, desperation and despair among people who have not yet recovered will grow. We know this from watching other disasters unfold such as Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. In short, the social body will suffer long after our physical bodies are fine.
But that doesn’t have to be the ending of the Pennsylvania story.
Even as we are sheltering in place, we need to begin to create a community response plan. The first step is to develop an enhanced community immune system to ward off the virus of hate that wears the mask of intolerance, victim-shaming, cyberbullying and physical attacks.
Hate, like any virus, can kill its host. Only this time the host is We, the People and what will die are the shared democratic principles of equality and justice which hold our society together. Just as public health experts come to protect the health of a community, social workers work to protect the mental health of the community, we need to work with our local human relations commissions across the state to protect the peace of the community. Human relations commissions have a long history of paying attention to the most disadvantaged groups in our community in trying times.
It is critical that as Pennsylvania exits this pandemic, the lives of infected individuals as well as the well-being of our affected communities have been restored.
Chad D. Lassiter is Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.