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Ben Downing: Personal Responsibility Isn’t Enough

With COVID cases surging, Governor Baker’s primary new response has been to double down on a plea for personal responsibility. The Governor is right, everyone should wear a mask and socially distance. But that isn’t enough. Massachusetts widening economic inequality, combined with the Governor’s mixed messages around economic reopening have hampered our ability to stop the virus’ spread.

A better, equitable response to the COVID crisis, would have started with legislation to provide

Emergency paid sick time to the millions of workers not covered by federal benefits. While others have taken these steps , Massachusetts has not, leaving workers to determine if their cough or runny nose is serious enough to merit missing a paycheck. A disproportionate share of these workers are Black and Brown, women and immigrants, and low income. They were struggling before the pandemic and our response has forced them to choose between economic security and their health.

Along with expanded sick time, Governor Baker and Beacon Hill leaders should have set an eviction moratorium for the duration of the pandemic, while in parallel, developing a comprehensive strategy for supporting renters and landlords. Instead, the moratorium expired and eviction proceedings have begun for thousands, threatening to throw them out on the street. Predominantly Black and Brown, women, immigrant and low income renters are forced to work when they might otherwise use sick time, to stave off eviction. Many who have been laid off during the COVID recession have no means to avoid ending up homeless. All of this has been exacerbated by the state’s programmatic response to eviction struggling to ramp up and meet demand.

Even if Massachusetts had enacted emergency sick time and an extended eviction moratorium, we were starting from a weak foundation. Our economy has been increasingly defined by unequal growth. Decades of tax cuts slanted to the wealthy and underfunding public services have hollowed out the middle class, left the poor living on the edge and weakened our resilience. Governor Baker has failed to learn these lessons, as he supports significant service cuts to public transit which will impact those hardest hit by the pandemic and least well off before it.

These policy shortcomings are made worse by the mixed messages coming from the Governor’s strategy. On the one hand, the public is told to socially distance and specifically to avoid even small gatherings in their homes outside their core family. On the other, casinos remain open. Indoor dining remains open. The public is right to wonder what harm a dinner party could be if the same group could just meet at the bar around the corner.

Massachusetts has all the resources to have minimized the impact of COVID. Instead of saying we are all in this together, the message to the public was and is, we are all on our own. One of the lessons from COVID must be to reject that message. Personal responsibility is not enough.

We can build a fairer, stronger Massachusetts as we rid our communities of this virus. To do so, we must also rid ourselves of the delusion that sacrifices for the common good make us weaker.

They make us stronger. Now we need leaders who understand that.

Ben Downing represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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