While the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted long-standing inequalities in Massachusetts, some elected leaders believe that those gaps won’t disappear unless lawmakers change policies that shaped them.
There now is a Massachusetts Senate committee tasked with figuring out how to do that.
State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, chairs the Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts: Post-Pandemic Resiliency, which met publicly for the first time Tuesday to discuss housing, internet access and affordability, and regional issues facing Southeastern Massachusetts.
Rather than issue a report after a set period of time, Hinds sees the committee’s role as to study issues facing a post-pandemic Massachusetts and to investigate proposed solutions, recommending or supporting legislative actions as necessary.
The “reimagining committee” includes the chairs of committees on education, housing, racial equity, and labor and workforce development.
“[The pandemic] has been a catastrophic event and an existential threat to the livelihood and health of millions of Mass. residents, and the impact and the pain has been disproportionately falling on communities of color and low-income residents,” Hinds said in a call with reporters. “So, as a policy developer, it’s hard not to experience this as the result of a massive policy failure.”
Panelists invited by lawmakers Tuesday used examples from the pandemic to illustrate where the state could have done better or could do better going forward.
John Yazwinski, CEO of the housing nonprofit Father Bill’s & MainSpring, referenced high infection rates in congregate shelters at the start of the pandemic, although he said Father Bill’s had an infection rate of below 1 percent after transitioning most of its residents into hotels. Nearly one-third of people experiencing homelessness in Boston who were tested came back positive, city officials said in April.
“Packing a lot of people in crowded shelters is not a good approach, public health-wise, and we hope we do not have to go back there,” Yazwinski said.
Andrea Park, a housing and homelessness staff attorney for the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, argued that the expiration of the state’s eviction moratorium led to increased COVID-19 transmission as displaced renters bunked up. Since the moratorium expired in October, Massachusetts courts have allowed owners to repossess property in 1,810 nonpayment eviction cases, according to Trial Court data.
Dr. Jarvis Chen, a Harvard University social epidemiologist, said the state did not prioritize providing data on race and ethnicity early in the pandemic. Differences in people’s ability to work from home, which Chen attributed in part to structural racism and related differences in educational attainment, largely determined which communities saw the most COVID-19 cases and deaths.
“We could have done a much better job with economic relief ... particularly in the earlier phases of the epidemic, [as well as] housing assistance to enable people particularly in those multi-generational housing situations to practice self-isolation and quarantine if exposed,” Chen said.
The widespread shift of life online during the pandemic also has brought greater attention to the so-called digital divide, although Hinds and some panelists sought to reframe the topic as “a poverty issue.”
“There’s no future that doesn’t involve increased reliance on digital tools in the workplace, in education, for telehealth,” said Evan Horowitz, executive director for the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University.
Of the 21 percent of Massachusetts residents who cannot access the internet or who can access the internet only through a phone, 97 percent live in downtowns or urban environments, said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
Siefer recommended that the state work to give residents access to low-cost broadband and digital devices, as well as encourage trusted local organizations to provide help with technical support and digital literacy.
Digital experts have expressed hopes as well as fears over the larger post-pandemic future of technology.
Lee Rainie, director of internet and technology research at the Pew Research Center, said experts surveyed voiced concerns that trends in technology could “enhance the power of big technology firms as they exploit their market advantages.” Others, though, have expressed optimism that “the reset brought about by the pandemic will allow people to reconfigure major systems” such as education, health care and employment.
Legislators’ work, Rainie said, can play a role in determining the balance of the benefits and harms that residents will experience.
“The issues we explore are not yet settled,” Rainie said.