“The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” I have read those words thousands of times. They ring through my head as all our worlds break. I hear them and I remind myself that being strong at the broken places does not mean better, but it does mean different. Nothing good will come out of COVID-19. The vast majority of the death and pain was avoidable. But the blessing in grief, in suffering is that we choose how we respond. We can honor the memories of those we lost with our response. We can choose to become stronger. But it is a choice we must make, individually and as a society.
COVID-19 is not the great equalizer. It is the great highlighter. The virus highlights every fissure, every weak link, every gap in the fabric of our society. It has preyed on the homeless and the elderly. It has targeted African Americans, Latinos and the poor. It has spread wider the gaps in education, healthcare, and housing. Here in Massachusetts it has shown that even the men and women who fought to protect our freedoms cannot be guaranteed safety.
We were broken before COVID-19. Massachusetts was prosperous, but highly unequal. According to a 2015 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the median wealth of a white household in Boston is $247,500. The median wealth of an African American household is nearly zero. Since 2015, 58% of the gain of economic growth have flowed to the top 1%, only adding to the wealth gap and exacerbating racial inequities. At the same time, the state was cutting the income tax, disproportionately benefiting the same top earners. Tax cuts fueled the trend of worsening inequality and hampered the state’s ability to invest in transportation, education and housing to help lift folks out of poverty and grow the middle class.
We were broken when COVID-19 made its way to Massachusetts. Whether we remain broken after is our choice. We can choose to become stronger. Stronger by seeing the gaps and fissures that the virus exposed and working to close them. Stronger by rebuilding our economy, our communities and our society, focused on fixing both the problem at hand and ensuring we build toward a stronger future for all. Stronger so that when we are faced with another crisis, we are more resilient and prepared. Stronger so that we rise and fall as one.
COVID-19 is not an equalizer, but it has shown and reminded us that our fates are linked. Every act of social distancing recognizes this reality. As we rebuild, we must remember that. We must remember it as we focus on the immediate challenge staring at us now - the public health crisis - and as we turn our attention to the soon to be crisis of recession and recovery.
Hemingway wrote that afterward many are strong at the broken places. Many - not all. We can choose to become stronger. We can remember our lost friends, family members, neighbors and co-workers and honor their memories with a response that summons the best of Massachusetts. We can recognize what was wrong in our society when COVID-19 came, we can see where we were broken and choose to become stronger there. For them, for all of us, I pray we do and for the sake of our collective futures we must.
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.
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