COVID-19 Exposes Deadly Gaps in Our Social Safety Net

A homeless man sits on Broad Street in Richmond, Va., March 18, 2020.
A homeless man sits on Broad Street in Richmond, Va., March 18, 2020.(Parker Michels-Boyce/Virginia Mercury)
Published: Mar. 19, 2020 at 11:50 AM EDT
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By Angela Ciolfi

There is nothing like a crisis to expose the cavernous gaps in our systems of support.

A few examples among many:

Evicting people from public housing for unpaid rent when other affordable housing options are scarce has always increased homelessness and educational instability. COVID-19 just lays bare the naked cruelty of it.

Firing workers for being sick — or for taking care of sick children or parents — has always been heartless. Why is it any more unconscionable when the disease is coronavirus instead of flu or cancer?

Mass incarceration and immigrant detention were always deadly. Just ask the women at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women where 20 women died between February 2016 and February 2020. COVID-19 just magnifies the health and other risks of locking so many people up for so long for so little.

To put it bluntly: COVID-19 is not just a destructive act of nature. It is also a human-made crisis caused by our collective failure to address gaps in our economic system and social safety net. These gaps leave millions of people stranded every day without health care, paid sick leave, affordable housing, reliable food sources, access to technology and broadband and other basic life necessities.

Immigrants, families living paycheck to paycheck, people who are incarcerated, those who lack affordable housing or child care and many others live a grueling, perpetual, slow-motion emergency every day due to our collective failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform, support a living wage, end mass incarceration and take any number of steps to alleviate the effects of vast economic inequality and discrimination on low-income communities and communities of color.

Those gaps existed before COVID-19, but the pandemic will exacerbate and compound their effects, leaving even larger chasms between the haves and have-nots when it recedes — unless we take aggressive action now to prevent the pandemic from having a catastrophic impact on low-income communities.


The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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