The Long Slog of Social Distancing

Phil Murphy

Governor Murphy has repeatedly told New Jersey residents to stay the course during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, he said that while the coronavirus curve is “undeniably flattening”, the house is “still on fire.”

The hopes of returning to any semblance of a pre-Coronavirus environment is still out of reach.  The Governor has suggested that perhaps by July we can see some normalcy, but that estimate is based on residents maintaining strict social distancing which will be challenging as the weather warms and Memorial Day weekend arrives.  …   And even if social distancing is relaxed during the second part of the summer, we should not assume that it will be a relic of the past.  The CDC Director Robert Redfield warned that there may very well may be a second wave of COVID-19 this fall, meaning that we should expect social distancing to continue in various forms over the next year or more. And a recent MIT study published in Science this week suggests that we may be social distancing until 2022, depending  on a range of variables including immunity rates, adherence to social distancing, and advances in medicine and contact tracing.

Many New Jerseyans, who are young and healthy, are being asked to social distance not just for their health, but for others’ well-being.  Asymptomatic carriers run the real risk of infecting many residents who can become very ill and die.  A recent study from Santa Clara, California estimated that between 2.49% and 4.16% of people in county had been infected with Covid-19 but were undetected. This represents between 48,000 and 81,000 people that were infected in the county.  Yet at the time of the study the county had officially recorded less than 1,000 confirmed cases. This indicates that New Jersey’s infection numbers, while quite high relative to other states, could be underestimating the number of infected residents. These studies are disturbing and force us to see how our actions can unintentionally harm others. We are being asked to make significant changes in our lives, in order to prevent our older grandparent from falling ill; to keep our immune-suppressed friend from catching COVID-19; to help the strangers we will never meet from harm; and, importantly, protect our health care system from crashing. .

A foundation of this country is the social contract. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” established an implicit agreement among members of society to cooperate for their mutual benefit; social investments in each other were  essential to securing the mutual protection and well-being of all the citizenry. Social distancing has required us to live up to the unspoken ideals of this social contract in our communities. It has forced us to put the greater good before ourselves.

The reality is that we will be socially distancing for far longer than we can imagine and will want.  And this has real impacts for everyone.  Many people are rightly worried about both their economic and health well-being.   We do not, however, have to accept the premise that economic security and health security are mutually exclusive. We need to move beyond this false dichotomy, and ensure that both, in concert with each other, prevails.  Instead of forcing re-openings quickly which many health experts fear could lead to greater infections; we need a different policy response.

There are several roadmaps to accomplish this.  Representatives Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Tim Ryan (D-OH) introduced The Emergency Money for the People Act which would provide a $2,000 monthly payment to every qualifying American over the age of 16 for up to 12 months. And Republican Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) in a Washington Post op-ed proposed a Denmark style policy in which the federal government should cover 80 percent of wages for workers at any U.S. business, up to the national median wage, until this emergency is over. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) introduced the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act. This Act, if approved, would call for a nationwide cancellation of rents and home mortgage payments through the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, or up to one year. It would also create a relief fund for lenders and landlords to cover the lost rental and mortgage payments they would have received.  And we need to protect the essential workers who risk their lives each day. For instance, Democratic lawmakers  are proposing the Hero’s Fund to give all frontline essential workers, from health care workers to grocery store clerks, up to $25,000 in hazard pay as part of the phase four coronavirus relief bill.  In addition, they propose a $15,000 recruitment incentive for health and home care workers and first responders to secure the workforce we need.

This is an unprecedented time. It requires an unprecedented response from both individuals and policymakers. It requires the recognition that we really are “in this together”; that any one persons’ actions affect another person. It requires we be mindful of others, that our investment in their well-being impacts our own.  Instead of just posting a hopeful meme on Facebook to show support, we are being asked to change our lives in significant ways.  Business as usual will not work.  As we move forward, policies need to be broad and they need to be big so as to make everyone as economically whole and healthy as possible.  To do so, must think and act beyond just ourselves and our self-interest. Our well-being will be dependent on the well-being of the whole. Hopefully we are all up to the challenge.

In one of his last public speeches before his death, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey stated, “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” It is time to ensure we do just that.

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