The COVID-19 pandemic’s unequal burden

in Community

Three crises crushed norms in 2020, falling most heavily on the young and old. Life ceased to be familiar nine months ago; numerous observers say the pandemic set in motion evolutionary changes in education, government, business and private life. The question haunting those who have had to deal with its harshest effects in San Mateo County is this: Could life be better, society more egalitarian, after the pandemic?

Possibly. Those whose work underpins the most basic functions of Peninsula life are working to make it happen. Social and racial equity are key.

In March, Covid-19 arrived and months of confusing, intrusive and isolating social regulation followed. This in the midst of a vitriolic presidential campaign built on racial, economic and political divisions. The killing of George Floyd under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin in May generated unrest that brought into the streets social, racial and demographic groups not used to uniting at standoffs with riot police.

Previous generations experienced disaster and trauma, but in modern American history not the equivalent of three in a year. From nonprofits to government to business to health care, everyone confronted challenges and responded in distinctive ways, but one word, equity, has emerged as the unifying plea. Triple tragedy brought into relief the fact that greatest damage has been done to those least equipped to survive it. Suffering has been unequal.

Supervisor Warren Slocum did not foresee in January how prescient were his remarks as he addressed the public as the newly elected President of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. The presidential campaign was in full swing, but the pandemic and the Floyd killing were not on the horizon. The goal of his term, he said, would be equity. He asked public and county staff to consider their behavior through an “equity lens.”

A Defining Term

“Vast disparities exist in San Mateo County and we know that systemic inequality diminishes us all,” he said, using “systemic inequality” just before a time when those words provoked civil unrest. Four months later, Covid-19 removed any doubt that systemic inequality guaranteed privileged treatment for a few and neglect for those who lost jobs, couldn’t feed families, lost homes, and got sick. Low-income workers became frontline and essential workers. School districts lost track of families and children, a major problem considering that a third of the county’s 93,000 public school students were on a free or reduced-price school lunch program and were most at risk.

This story was originally published in the January edition of Climate Magazine.

The pandemic’s toll reinforced Slocum’s call for equity, prompting the board and County Manager Mike Callagy to empanel what may be the county’s largest task force ever: 168 community, government and nonprofit leaders organized to produce the San Mateo County Recovery Initiative. Covid-19 was the proximate cause but equity the overriding purpose. Forty-five outside community partners joined. In September the group published 125 action items organized around “a collective restart …To create an equitable community,” declaring that “systems, policies, and practices of oppression must be dismantled” in social services, health care, housing, and technology.

Though the future is unclear, both positive and negative trends are emerging. More than a dozen educators, technology analysts and medical professionals shared views that shaped this forecast.

Most emphasized their opinions were theirs alone.

Schools at the Forefront

The public school system, not government, is emerging as the primary agent of social change. In the pandemic, authorities say, students and youth experienced a generational trauma the equivalent of parental divorce, the Great Depression, assassinations, even war. Educators are dealing with increases in severe mental health issues among students, from personality dissociation to anger management to depression to self-injury. Technology, such a boon to work-at-homes, is an obstacle when dealing with mental health issues youth present.

Pre-pandemic, school counselors and staff saw drop-in visitors. Today counseling is online electronic. That’s far from ideal even if a child stuck at home can sign on without siblings or parents—some of them part of the problem—being in on the call. Mental health counseling requires manipulation of objects, from writing to drawing to shapes. Professionals must be expert at reading subtle cues like breathing and eye movement, very hard to follow over Zoom. Mental health professionals report a so-far unexamined decline in reports of child abuse. Educators are concerned about an uptick in teen pregnancy. Condoms are readily accessible on campus, but perhaps impossible to get at home.

Beyond having to invent a new way to teach, schools now go far outside conventional responsibilities to meet the pandemic. Staff are learning to locate food and housing, navigate government assistance programs and see to the health of entire families. They are toting Wi-Fi hotspots into neighborhoods and providing technology training.

Beyond the Daily Headlines

After nine months, it’s time to banish the idea that “normal” in two years, five years, or 10 will look like pre-2020. Things will be different, possibly more equitable if 2020 institutional initiatives pan out.

San Mateo County’s is a diverse economy, which cushions the impact of stay-at-home orders and business closures. Technology companies are scattered throughout Peninsula cities and generally have done well, despite emptying offices of workers. It is not an unalloyed benefit, but the pandemic will give tech a huge boost in the long term.

Tech sustained the pre-pandemic real estate sector, pushing home prices to record highs, and continues to do so. Urban techies are gravitating to bigger suburban homes with more space and better schools, like those on the Peninsula.

Massive office campuses like Google’s and Apple’s are virtually empty and likely to remain that way for a year and longer; however, because commercial real estate demand was strong before the pandemic and the market is resilient, that may not be a big problem. The longer the downturn lasts the greater the damage, but those taking the long view remain optimistic.

Further, biotech and biological science companies are hedges against collapse of the commercial office sector economy. These buildings have specialized spaces and infrastructure not available to home-based workers, so staffs continue to commute. Biotech and life sciences officially are essential businesses and are spared much of the pandemic’s disruption.

Public Transit Suffering

Public transit, however, has been clobbered and Bay Area Rapid Transit, Golden Gate Transit, San Francisco Muni, Muni Metro and the Silicon Valley Transportation Authority have not been able to predict when, or even if, they might recover.

Happy news for certain Peninsulans: Caltrain service will continue. In Measure RR, voters approved a new tax base for Caltrain, without which it would not survive a pandemic-caused 95 percent drop in farebox revenues. The new tax money won’t start arriving until September, but Caltrain can and will borrow against it.

Steve Heminger, formerly chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments, says transit and highway transportation “won’t return to the old normal,” adding that, “some amount of working-at-home telecommuting is going to survive and that’s going to have an influence on the demand on highway and transit systems.”

To address climate change, increased telecommuting had been baked into the region’s 2020–2050 transit plan. How much will actually happen depends on if commuters get back on the road, Heminger said.

“People are willing to try things,” he said, “(but) if you tell them it’s permanent, they take a different look than if it’s something they’ve got to do for a week, a month, a year and they’ve got a chance to go back to normal. Because people are dying to go back to normal.”

The Hospitality Industry

No sector suffered ravages of the pandemic as severely as travel and leisure. On a trend to serve 57 million passengers in the year 2020, San Francisco International Airport lost 40 million. Fallout spared no Peninsula city, but few fared worse than Burlingame. Of the 9,000 jobs the county lost as of early September, 16 Burlingame businesses, 13 of which served SFO, accounted for 2,000 layoffs, almost 700 of them at the Hilton and Marriott airport hotels alone.

Cities collect Transient Occupancy Tax on hotel guest stays. Burlingame’s TOT dropped $6 million this year, accounting for most of its $8 million pandemic-era revenue loss. All told, the Mid-Peninsula area lost $65 million in TOT. Recovery will be very slow. San Francisco drives tourism, and that city’s controller projects it will take six years at least for visitor business to return. As San Francisco visitor business goes, so goes the Peninsula.

Fortunately, the property tax mainstay has suffered little. Cities earn virtually automatic two percent per year property tax growth. In hard-hit Burlingame, for example, property tax will continue to rise about $1 million a year. Construction fee revenues, both residential and commercial, also remain strong.

That said, almost all cities face growing unfunded public employee pension liability. Unless they finance their own pension system, cities and employees contribute to the California Public Employees Retirement System. CalPERS’ investment performance affects how much they have to offset. CalPERS budgeted a 7 percent rate of return last year; its June 30, 2020, estimate is 4.7 percent. Local agencies and employees must make up the difference.

Cities have tools that help them react relatively quickly to circumstances. San Carlos Council member Sara McDowell pointed to the bioscience building boom under way on the east side of town. The city will fold the lessons of the pandemic into a new land-use plan for the area that will take most of a year to develop. New travel modes, different commuter needs, a new commercial mix will be taken into account.

Pre-pandemic, few appreciated how much restaurant dining was the glue holding certain Peninsula social circles together, but they appreciate it now. Cities jumped to protect their gourmet ghettos as best they could, giving over traffic lanes to restaurant parklets, short-circuiting paperwork and coming up with money. San Carlos closed a block of Laurel Street thick with restaurants, perhaps permanently, depending on experience. Not everyone’s happy. Brick and mortar merchants, facing extinction by online shopping, compete for parking and object to any loss. In fact, probably no one’s happy.

What Economists Predict

The San Mateo County Economic Development Association recently published the assessment of nine famous international economists, who agreed economic recovery will be like the “Nike swoosh,” not the V-shaped snap-back the Trump administration hoped for. After a big crash to levels of two to eight years ago, indicators will come back, but slowly, growing more slowly than before the pandemic.

For some, sunshine. For others, cloudy days. For minorities, immigrants, the poorest, the young, and the elderly, the outlook is darkness and shadows.

Low-income minority communities lost more jobs and were also more often frontline workers exposed to infection. The world rushed to Zoom, but immigrant families shunned technology out of fear. Most had connections to the undocumented population. Their social connections were low tech, cell phones and free food lines.

Even before the pandemic seven of 10 female heads of households living alone locally were overextended and living month-to-month. One in 10 residents reported mental or emotional problems, almost two in 10 under age 40. One in four showed symptoms of chronic depression; among blacks, Hispanics and Coastsiders it was one in three.

A half million individuals and families in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties now depend on distributions from Second Harvest Food Bank, double what it was pre-pandemic. African-American and Hispanic families are two to three times more likely to report not having enough food.

Second Harvest CEO Leslie Bacho says those at the bottom will recover much more slowly than those at the top. “If you’ve completely wiped out your savings, if you can’t pay the rent, if, God forbid, more people are infected,” she said, “it takes a long time to recover from those challenges, … when people go back to work, they’re in debt. It takes a long time to build back up to where they were.”

Schools Carrying the Load

The pandemic has at least helped break down the siloed approach to social services. For years, nonprofits picked up programs that government could no longer afford. With schools at the forefront, the need to consolidate is gaining traction, race-baiting, police violence and a worldwide plague making plain that inequality is at the root.

As Stanford professor and futurist Paul Saffo said, “These problems have been a constant. Covid-19 merely caused the tide to recede, thus revealing what was hidden.”

Children today have learned to look at other people differently, as threats. “Outside” means a walk, not play. High school students have lost a year in the search for self- and social identity, for which hanging out with friends and trying on new personalities is critical. Educators report a huge increase in mental health problems among youth, from depression to suicidal thoughts to cutting.

For the sufferers, the education system has never been more important. Schools are direct links to families. Today families need food, physical and mental health care, access to pandemic income relief, rent assistance and housing. Because education has gone online, educators, even bus drivers, are in the community setting up Wi-Fi and teaching technology.

Hubs and pods will never go away. In the Redwood City School District, which is typical, small instructional pods, socially distanced, provide in-person classes for students most in need of one-on-one instruction. They will continue even if the district succeeds in returning to classrooms early this year.

The same with web hubs that put teachers in the middle of groups of families as they reach out to remote learners. Now established, those methods will work their way into the post-pandemic education system.

Educators have become vocal about what they always knew. The quality of health, housing and access to food depends on where families live. Property values, the fundamental revenue source for city and school services, vary widely. Melissa Ambrose, wellness coordinator for the Jefferson Union High School District in Daly City, says teachers there earn $30,000 to $40,000 less than those mid-county.

“I sometimes question myself … how can we close the gap?” she said. “Schools are doing what they were designed to do, they were designed in a system of white supremacy, to keep the status quo. So, there are a bunch of us inside the system trying to batter away at a system that’s doing what it’s supposed to do.”

Impact on Seniors

Seniors represent 13 to 15 percent of county population but account for a quarter of Covid-19 deaths. Those who work in the field say the coronavirus crisis will reduce socialization, mobility, and group activity for the elderly, permanently.

Mary Griffin, VP of Home Care and Support Services for the Institute on Aging, a private senior home care company, expects future home-care standards to emphasize isolation, eliminate common spaces, segregate entrances and exits, and evolve because of new emphasis on disease prevention, among staff as well as clients. Personal protective equipment for staff and hand sanitizer “are here to stay,” she said. Isolation, loneliness and depression will increase. New ways to address the problem will have to be found.

Despite Covid‘s terrible toll and bleak outlook, nearly everyone contacted for this story held an optimistic long-term view.

The county’s Recovery Initiative plan contains a Social Progress Index, which will provide public access to numerous measures of social equity for every census tract in the county, indisputable granular data anyone can use. “I think the recovery work will become standard operating procedure,” Supervisor Slocum said.

Covid Revealed Inequities

Adding to pressure for change, County Manager Callagy is to hire a Chief Equity Officer, a new brand of administrator with authority to push. “This thing called the pandemic put a bright light on inequities in this county,” he said. “When I talk about inequity I talk about out-of-school care and workforce development, the digital divide and mental health care and physical health care and food and housing balance, the businesses we support, the support we provide through nonprofits and childcare. All those things are harder for those who don’t have the necessities to get by in life, who are struggling for work. Who are struggling with the basic need for food and housing.”

The pandemic, he said, was “fortuitous” because it pointed the way to equality, defined as the state of all areas of the county being at “functional zero,” as the PSI calls it. “The fact is this really shined a light on that.”

Callagy continued, “Let’s use this pandemic as a social revolution of some kind that really makes a difference in the way we look at society and the way we contribute to society so that everyone has an equal opportunity. We’ve got so many people pulling in the right direction. We’ve got legislators here, we’ve got really good people, but that’s something we’ve got to focus on. I’m telling you, that’s something I’m passionate about. It breaks my heart to see kids left behind and have it depend on where they live.”