By Maria Whyte
As a member of the essential workforce in Erie County government mobilized to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, I have been one of many people working very hard. But I have also been reflecting on what I have learned.
I have learned to treasure the now forbidden gatherings of family and friends. Also to treasure artists, musicians and poets, as well as nurses, teachers and social workers, who now more than ever make the world go round. I have come to treasure long-lost hugs, group fitness and living in the now. And I have learned to treasure a shoulder roll and a deep breath for the short but necessary respite they provide when you must carry on.
But I have learned so much more. I have learned that no amount of emergency management training prepares you for this. Nevertheless, having seen firsthand what a difference it makes, everyone should train for an emergency. Further, I have learned that the working people cleaning hospitals, stocking grocery stores, caring for our elderly and raising our children deserve to emerge from this crisis better paid and better protected. These workers have always been “essential workers,” but now they are more visible, more vulnerable and more valued.
While workers are more visible, I have learned that so too are the deepening cracks in our republic – cracks like the lack of comprehensive health care for millions, growing income and racial inequality, and low voter participation. These cracks were all present before Covid-19 but now they are uncomfortably in our face as millions of newly unemployed Americans are wondering how they will afford health care if they get sick; as essential workers are more likely to spread disease without paid sick leave; as new data shows higher numbers of African Americans are dying from the virus; and as the lack of a coordinated federal response to the crisis leaves state and local governments scrambling through scarcity to respond.
Finally, I have learned that our young people, our future leaders who will have grown up in a damaged economy while watching many parents and grandparents die from the coronavirus, will have the opportunity to build a new, more compassionate path, grounded in science and equity.
We’re only four weeks in to this crisis. We are not even at the end of the beginning. There will be much more to learn. But I don’t need more time to crystalize the greatest lesson of all: although the foe we are fighting is different, the fight will be won the same way – with good information, proper preparation, hard work and sacrifice, faith in our youth, grace from above, and, as County Executive Mark Poloncarz continues to say, with solidarity for all.
Maria Whyte is Erie County's deputy county executive.