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Responding to Disease and Disinvestment: Promoting Equity in Time of Crisis

March 12, 2020

by Crispin Delgado, Public Policy Consultant, Northern California Grantmakers

COVID-19 is a global pandemic with very local implications. We are constantly reminded that COVID-19 is quickly spreading and communities must act quickly to contain it. Containment efforts purposely disrupt the ways in which people live, work, learn, and play.  

Social distancing by schools, businesses, and communities means canceling classes and events—including fundraisers vital to the local nonprofits providing needed services. Images from around the world show workers in hazmat suits bravely battling this invisible virus, but I was recently struck by an image of two Latina women pushing their respective cleaning carts in what appeared to be a hotel. There was no protective suit for them, they carried chemicals, low-grade masks and disposable gloves. I wondered, “Do they have enough protection to safeguard their own health, as they sterilize the environment to protect us?”

Studying public health, I learned that we are only as safe as the most vulnerable person in our communities. Viruses don’t care how rich or poor you are, or about the color of your skin: but our response to this crisis should take all of those things into consideration. The many interventions sparked by the COVID-19 outbreak, while essential and welcome, prioritize disease containment and the stabilization of a volatile economy over ensuring solutions that are rooted in equity and lift up those who most need it.

Our response to crises should ensure that everyone in our communities, including those who are sacrificing their own health to protect ours, are provided the necessary resources to avoid devastation in their own lives.

San Francisco, has unveiled a fund offering grants to small businesses impacted by social distancing. This step is critical for low-income workers, particularly those in the service and hospitality sectors who cannot afford to take unpaid time off or who rely on tips to make ends meet.

My uncle, who has worked most of his life at a hotel near Union Square, is one such case. His bartending job earns him a living wage, but when tourists stay away, he too is sent home. He recently received a check for three hours of his time, despite having spent nearly the same amount of time getting to and from work and paying tolls to cross two bridges.

Times of crises amplify structural shortcomings. A robust healthcare infrastructure and meaningful social protections are fundamental to containing a pandemic of this proportion. Those of us in the philanthropic sector, must consider how we more broadly ensure the health and wellbeing of everyone in our communities, both in times of crisis and beyond.

There is much we can do to help bridge the inequities that this crisis magnifies.

  • Influence the narrative. We must center the voices of communities who are contending with the disparate effects of this pandemic. We must be at the table elevating their voices not just in time of crisis, but for the long run. We must support the resiliency of the communities that have historically suffered from disinvestment and were systematically discouraged from speaking up.
  • Be nimble with your grantmaking. On a recent statewide funder webinar, leaders shared that foundations should consider core support and flexible reporting for those organizations serving our communities most in need. Those organizations on the front lines have trusting relationships, and can serve as a protective factor in ensuring people have the essential resources to get through this difficult time.
  • Act today, act tomorrow. While time is of the essence in containing the spread of COVID-19, we must also adapt our longer-term strategies to address the underlying structural inequities that put people with the fewest resources in harm’s way. Once we have reached containment and stability, we should lend our voice and resources to ensuring everyone in our communities has access to healthcare and an ability to be resilient after a crisis. 
  • Listen. Serving in a safety net health system for several years, I learned very early on that community members are the best experts on what they need. We should listen and lift up what they have to say, even if it is behind a low-grade face mask.

My heart goes out to communities negatively impacted by this crisis, including those families dealing with sickness or death. Also, to workers like my uncle, who are feeling the burden of past policy failures.

I am grateful to our elected officials, industry leaders, and philanthropic changemakers who are expanding the conversation of disaster response to include equity. These are the steps we must take to mitigate any unintended consequences from our response to this and future crises.

I am also proud to be part of Philanthropy California, a partnership of Northern California Grantmakers, Southern California Grantmakers, and San Diego Grantmakers, which is setting the bar for states across the nation on what can be accomplished when we work together to protect our most vulnerable in a time of great need.

Crispin Delgado, is a consultant for NCG's policy work. He has over 15 years' experience in health policy and philanthropy. Crispin lives in the East Bay where he is supported by his loving Latino family who still live nearby.