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Carman: COVID has revealed systemic injustice that we all finally must face

Building back better means confronting the systemic racism and misogyny that has created an underclass of essential workers

This week marks a dramatic milestone. It’s been a year since COVID-19 altered life as we knew it.

Happy anniversary, baby. We’ve been stuck at home together for 12 months. 

We’ve had Zoom book clubs, cocktail hours, meetings and Pilates classes. We’ve walked every inch of our neighborhood dozens, no, hundreds of times. We’ve established firm guidelines to avoid mutual self-destruction starting with never vacuuming the living room when someone is in the bedroom on a conference call and always keeping the dog out of camera range when conducting a video interview or negotiating a contract.

Diane Carman

And we’ve cooked our way through most of Melissa Clark’s recipes on the New York Times website. (If you haven’t made her Butterscotch Brownies, stop reading right now and brown some butter.) 

Meanwhile, all around us people are dealing with tragedy and hardship, not mere boredom and inconvenience. COVID-19 and the economic devastation in its wake have not been equal-opportunity catastrophes.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year found that a majority of the adult cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 in Denver were among Hispanics who comprise only 24.9% of the population. Interviews with families revealed that they likely had higher levels of exposure because they live in larger households, work in essential industries, experience delays in getting COVID testing and often felt compelled to work while they were sick.

None of those circumstances should be a death sentence.

In addition, women of all races and ethnicities have been sidelined from work at levels not seen in decades.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in October there were 2.2 million fewer women in the workforce nationally compared to October 2019. 

In Colorado, a year after the virus slammed the hospitality industry, retail and nearly every other aspect of the state’s economy, more than 20,000 women still haven’t returned to work. That’s a whole lot of families not putting money away for their kids’ educations, not contributing to retirement funds and cutting back on everything just to pay the rent.

With child care still tough to find, schools operating remotely or on hybrid schedules, and employers slashing wages, women have taken the brunt of the economic impact of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, fields dominated by women have been ravaged by reduced resources, exploding workloads and irrational hostility from the public.

Denver has long had a reputation for poor compensation for nurses. Despite the high cost of living, nurses in the metro area earn below the national average. Add to that grueling schedules during repeated surges in COVID outbreaks, shortages of protective supplies, challenges in keeping their families safe when they get home from work, and the emotional toll of being the only people there for patients suffering and dying, and you have a recipe for burnout — or worse.

The International Council of Nurses refers to it as “mass trauma” and speculates that the world could experience a shortfall of 14 million nurses by 2030, leaving us severely handicapped in the face of an aging population and inevitable future disease outbreaks.

Public health officials across the country have been harassed, threatened and demeaned. Dozens of them have left their jobs rather than allow themselves and their families to  endure such hatred.

The field of public health had been chronically underfunded for decades and, since the pandemic began, budgets have been further reduced.

The teaching profession may be in even worse shape.

In the past year, teachers have suffered financially as districts imposed unpaid furlough days to cut budgets and eliminated supplemental income opportunities that helped pay the mortgages for coaches and teachers who supervise myriad other activities.

At the same time, they have been required to simultaneously teach in-person and online classes in many areas, adapt to abrupt schedule changes every time disease outbreaks ebb and flow in their communities, and miraculously find ways to raise money to enable children to connect virtually even if their families lack access to computers or Wi-Fi in their homes.

And then when their representatives raise concerns about the safety of teachers working in schools where windows are sealed shut, 100 or more unmasked kids at a time must be supervised in lunchrooms, and teachers are left on their own to scrub down desks and sanitize classrooms several times a day, political leaders dismiss them as slackers in the thrall of sinister teachers’ unions.

No wonder 40% of the licensed teachers in Colorado have said they plan to quit this year and four district superintendents in the Denver area have already thrown in the towel.

If, like me, you’ve had the luxury of spending the past 12 months working from home and whining about the loss of a social life, the seriousness of the situation may have escaped you. 

We all want life to get back to normal, and maybe sometime this fall after vaccination rates get us closer to herd immunity, it will. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

But the old normal is not good enough. Too high a price has been paid by people on whom we depend. Their situations are dire.

When President Biden and Gov. Polis vow to “build back better,” for everyone’s sake we’d better hope that happens. And it’s going to take more than committing revenue to infrastructure projects, small business loans and quick-hit stimulus checks.

Building back better means confronting the systemic racism and misogyny that have created an underclass of essential workers whose health, safety and quality of life are routinely sacrificed in the name of corporate profits, low tax rates and political expedience.

If their lives merely go back to normal, we’ll have learned nothing from this long, lonely, tragic year. 

And we’ll deserve all the hell that is unleashed when the next crisis occurs.


Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.


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