The Ms. Q&A: Coronavirus’s Effects on Low-Income Families and the Need for Effective Policy

Earlier this week, the federal government passed bipartisan legislation aimed at halting the spread of coronavirus and providing U.S. workers with much-needed relief in light of business and office closures and quarantines around the nation.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, Ms.’s reporting is focused on aspects of the virus that disproportionately affect women.

We spoke with Kalpana Krishnamurthy and Kara Carmosino, program director and civic engagement manager, respectively, of Forward Together—an Oakland-based organization that builds political power and uplifts the leadership of women of color, nonbinary people and Indigenous communities—about their recommendations for policies Congress should prioritize, the federal government’s mishandling of the pandemic and particular heroes emerging during these troubled times.

Roxy Szal: What policies should Congress members be prioritizing to help women and families affected by coronavirus?

Krishnamurthy and Carmosino: Working families need solutions—like permanent paid sick days and paid family and medical leave—that include all families, as well as legal protections and living wages. In some states, tipped workers are still making $2.13 an hour, and with a slowdown in the economy because people are eating out less or going out in public less, these workers are left with paychecks that are unsustainable.

Meanwhile, domestic workers aren’t even included in many basic workplace protections.

In a public health emergency, no one should be worried about hospital bills. People need to be able to see a doctor, get tested for coronavirus and be treated without worrying about bankruptcy.

In addition to policies that support workers, it would be great to see Congress take the approach that places like Singapore and Hong Kong have taken: free medical care for anyone who has COVID-19. 

We need people-focused policies to be passed by Congress. The Trump administration is talking about payroll tax breaks and supporting the airline industry. Those kinds of economic policies have never been focused on meeting the needs of low-income families, and are instead focused on corporations and businesses.

Add these COVID-19 proposed tax cuts to the Trump tax cuts of 2017, and you end up pulling funding from the very programs like Medicaid and Social Security that are going to be so critical in this crisis.

Low-income families need economic relief, and tax breaks aren’t nearly enough. Low-income communities need direct support to ensure they can make their rent, pay for groceries and buy medication. Income assistance and a moratorium on evictions, student loan payments and mortgage payments would give people breathing room to take care of themselves and their families. Italy recently moved to suspend all mortgage and other debt payments during the outbreak.

We also need an end to policies and practices like homeless sweeps and ICE detention and deportations that keep communities from getting the care they need.

(Studio Incendo / Creative Commons)

RS: What is your take on the federal government’s response to the pandemic?

KK and KC: State and local health departments have been grappling with how to help local communities. 

Ideally there would be federal, state and local responses, with clear guidance available to the public. The current response has been disjointed and inadequate with conflicting information and guidance that is leaving the public without a clear plan. Unfortunately, they have had little support from the federal government. The federal government’s response has been shockingly bad.

Our families need real action to mitigate a global public health crisis—yet while the House debated the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, anti-abortion politicians tried to use the relief bill to prevent federal funds from being used for abortion.

Additionally, rhetoric from the Trump administration calling coronavirus “foreign” or “Chinese” has stoked xenophobia and fear.

Meanwhile, news broke of an internal pandemic response plan from 2007 that gives Customs and Border Patrol further powers to surveil and detain communities.

We need leadership from the federal government that provides clear guidance and relief to all families—not opportunistic attempts to further control, criminalize and endanger us.

RS: What about the coronavirus is making Forward Together the most nervous? What aspects should communities be thinking and talking about that are currently being overlooked?

KK and KC: We know that people in prisons, jails and migrant detention face a high risk of infection and denial of medical care. It’s critical that solutions and supports for the spread of coronavirus include those impacted by the criminal legal and immigration detention systems. Our loved ones who are incarcerated also deserve safety, health and care.

We’re not talking enough about how xenophobia and racism are showing up in this moment. Across the country, Asian communities are seeing a spike in hate crimes that are directly related to coronavirus.

Members of Congress referring to the “Chinese coronavirus” or “Wuhan virus”—and the president himself calling COVID-19 a “foreign virus”—stokes fear and xenophobia that puts our communities at risk.

Meanwhile, API businesses are seeing catastrophic drop-offs in customers as people stay away from restaurants, grocery stores and other API-owned businesses.

In addition, the containment zone in New Rochelle, [New York,] is in a Hasidic neighborhood: Forward Together (FT) is concerned about increased anti-Semitism as a result. 

RS: What aspects of coronavirus disproportionately affect women? Poor women? Women of color?

KK and KC: Women are less likely to have access to critical supports like paid sick days and health coverage or to be able to afford to miss work if they are sick. For women already working to make ends meet, lost wages or additional costs due to coronavirus could mean missed rent or student loan payments, skipped utility bills or not being able to put food on the table.

At a specific level, FT expects to see shortages of medications—such as insulin, contraceptives, antiretrovirals for HIV/AIDS and antibiotics to treat STIs—and supplies due to disruptions in medical supply chains overall. China, the second-largest exporter of pharmaceutical products in the world, has shut down several drug-manufacturing plants, which has in turn caused delays at Indian factories that produce generic medicines.

Even a shortage of needed supplies like surgical masks affects the nurses, doctors and healthcare workers on the front lines.

It’s important to name that Asian and Pacific Islanders (API) are disproportionately affected and have been the most affected communities for at least two months. API communities across the U.S. have seen a spike in hate crimes, increase in harassment and drops in business.

RS: How are children in particular most impacted by the pandemic?

KK and KC: Children are not a high risk group for COVID-19—according to the latest from the CDC and WHO. But kids will experience a lot of disruption in their lives because of COVID-19. 

As of Monday, thirty-six states and the District of Columbia have completely closed their schools for the next several weeks, and we expect more states will follow.

With schools closing and daycare centers closing, the question is: Who and how are we taking care of children right now? Every day 29.7 million children get free lunch or breakfast at school—as more school districts close, how are we ensuring that kids who participate in the National School Lunch program are getting fed? Especially if we can’t turn to community centers—which is what many communities do during the summer—because of coronavirus? 

This week, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, a package of proposals that provides relief for families and includes temporary paid sick days and paid family and medical leave for many employees impacted by coronavirus. Families have always needed solutions like paid sick days and paid medical leave to be able to care for themselves and their loved ones. The spread of coronavirus reminds us that forcing people to pick between work or caring for a loved one puts all our families and our communities at risk.

RS: Any particular stories on this topic you’d like to raise awareness to? Or perhaps particular heroes or champions of women and families you’ve noticed?

KK and KC: The National Domestic Workers Alliance started a fund to support care workers on the front lines.

Family Values @ Work is in leadership on the The Healthy Families Act—currently being voted on in Congress. 

ROC United has been advocating on behalf of tipped wage workers to encourages restaurants and restaurant chains to provide supports.

In the Bay Area, Disability Justice Culture Club is sharing resources and coordinating mutual aid to disabled community.

The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving.

During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media.

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Roxy Szal is the digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.