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Community Commentary/Opinion: COVID-19 shows our collective, interwoven condition

If nothing else, the last month of economic and social turmoil has revealed at least four things for me and my family.

The first realization is we are all interconnected in ways that I didn’t fully appreciate before.  The bonds weren’t invisible, yet I can look back and see how I still took them for granted.  The subtle comfort of chance encounters. The daily support from my children’s teachers. The easy release of going to the park and setting my children free to roam and play.

And yet, while these burdens are uncomfortable and difficult for us, my family is well-positioned to adapt.  We have sufficient situational resources to weather the daily challenges of the “new normal.”  And so, here’s the second realization.  The impact of COVID-19 has been, and will continue to be, far, far from equal.  

I know I shouldn’t have been surprised — I know the statistics.  I work for a nonprofit that serves families persevering under the crushing weight of poverty.  Yet the immediacy and depth of impact of COVID-19 on families with few resources has been still been stunning.

I know that, pre-COVID, 2/3 of Americans households did not have enough savings to cover a $500 emergency.  I know that if you dis-aggregate the data by race, it reveals the legacy of centuries of structural racism and race-based inequities that housing, health, employment, and educational policies have perpetuated throughout our social and economic systems.

I know that the accumulated “wealth” of an average Black household is only 1/10 that of an average white household.  I know that 53% of Black households in Charlottesville make less than $35,000 a year while only 27% of white households are in the same situation.

But here’s the third realization.  Your vulnerability actually imperils my own well-being.  If your family contracts COVID-19, it perpetuates the risk that my family might too.  COVID-19 has provided us with a remarkable lens to view ourselves — to see the truth of our collective, interwoven condition.  So, by ensuring you have the resources to keep your family safe, my own family is made safer.

Here’s the genuine significance of this conception — this insight actually applies across all of our systems.  As a society, we have worked very, very hard to hide from the reality that the inequities intrinsic to our systems actually impact us all — actually threaten all of our well-being by leaving many of our neighbors segregated and vulnerable.  But, as COVID-19 so clearly illustrates, simply hunkering down and shaking our heads at the injustice, we actually perpetuate the condition, compromising our own health and safety in the long run. We have never, as a society, had such a universal opportunity to honestly calculate the impact of our choices, to align our instinct for self-preservation with our moral conviction.

Last week, our family received our payment from the recent federal stimulus.  Here’s the fourth realization: Not only does our family not need it, we will substantively compromise our own well-being by simply keeping it to ourselves.

I’m fortunate enough have a stable job, some savings, and an inconvenient, but feasible plan to homeschool our kids.  If we just kept our stimulus payment, it’d probably go towards college savings or paying down the mortgage a bit. But here’s the deal: If we did, we’d be further participating in growing the gap of household wealth inequity — further pulling that much more ahead while families already at the edge need to use it for the necessary immediacy of addressing daily challenges.  And as the lens provided by COVID-19 has made eminently clear, this isn’t just a moral insight, but one also based in self-interest.

Under normal circumstances, I do my fallible best to base my decision-making on love and empathy, rather than on self-preservation or fear.  Yet in this unprecedented reality, the two seem to have become constructively interdependent — one strengthening the other.

This week, our family is going to slide our federal stimulus sideways to others who need it.  We’ll talk about it with our kids and decide where we can have critical impact.  If you and your family have the capacity, please do the same, whether in part or in whole.  These are some of the ideas we have considered so far:

  • Give to the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund that provides direct payments to community members in need.
  • Give to the overwhelmed Blue Ridge Area Food Bank or other food-related organizations that provide critical food resources to community members.  
  • Give to a nonprofit that you know provides direct services to those who need them.
  • Give directly to neighbors that we know are struggling. 

With respect and love (and self-interest),

Sunshine Mathon

Sunshine Mathon is the executive director of the Piedmont Housing Alliance.