Health Justice in Action: Durham’s Response to COVID-19

Katie CosbyUncategorizedLeave a Comment

Photo of Durham Central Park by Tim Bounds via Flickr

Just months ago, “social distancing” and “stay-at-home order” were not commonly used phrases. Now, many of us are changing our behavior to protect ourselves and our loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the pandemic has progressed, we have all been affected in different ways. Although the virus itself does not discriminate, existing disparities have become even more apparent over the last several weeks. The virus has further exposed what many already understood: not everyone has access to the same resources. These resources – such as housing, healthcare, employment, and food – are important to a person’s overall health, and unequal distribution results in poor health outcomes. Specifically, systemic racism makes it more difficult for Black and Brown communities to access basic necessities. Low-income, marginalized, and minority communities were less likely to have equal access pre-pandemic. Now, with hardships brought on by COVID-19, these communities are struggling even more.

Additionally, individuals are being asked to change their behavior to slow the spread of the virus. Following public health recommendations is important, but not everyone can easily do so. For example, low-wage workers are less likely to have paid sick leave and those without homes may not be able to self-isolate. While individuals should follow public health recommendations, it is equally essential for governments to provide the support necessary for individuals to take these steps.

That’s why Durham’s response to COVID-19 must prioritize health justice. Health justice ensures everyone in a community has equal access to the resources they need to be healthy.

Health Affairs recently published an article outlining strategies that can be used to protect vulnerable communities during the current pandemic. Here in Durham, a number of the steps taken to protect our community reflect those strategies. Centering health justice is critical to increasing health equity, and the efforts listed below reflect Durham’s determination to achieve that goal.

Protect Workers

State and local governments should provide relief for workers through unemployment benefits and paid sick leave. Additionally, governments should anticipate long-term economic impacts and take steps to alleviate burdens on low-income communities.

Governor Cooper issued an executive order announcing changes to unemployment insurance benefits in order to make benefits easier to access for those who have lost work due to COVID-19, including allowing workers to apply for partial unemployment insurance.

Governor Cooper issued an executive order to expedite payment of unemployment insurance claims.

Governor Cooper issued an executive order to allow businesses flexibility to make payments that assist their employees.

The North Carolina unemployment office has increased their capacity in response to the spike in unemployment claims.

The Emergency Child Care Subsidy Program enables essential workers to receive financial aid for childcare.

Independent contractors, self-employed workers and others out of work because of COVID-19 can now apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

The North Carolina General Assembly passed Senate Bill 704: COVID-19 Recovery Act, which increases flexibility for administering unemployment compensation and tax relief provisions.

The North Carolina General Assembly passed House Bill 1043: 2020 COVID-19 Recovery Act, which includes funding for rural and underserved communities in NC to address COVID-19 disparities.

Photo of Major the Bull by Tim Bounds via Flickr

Place a Moratorium on Evictions and Utility Shut-off

In directing people to stay in their homes, governments should take steps to increase housing stability and safety.

North Carolina’s Chief Justice Cheri Beasley issued an order halting foreclosure and eviction hearings, and Attorney General Stein worked in conjunction with Governor Cooper to establish an executive order supporting Chief Justice Beasley’s halt.

Attorney General Josh Stein and the North Carolina Department of Justice have taken steps to prevent the evictions of those who rely on motels and hotels as their primary residence.

The Durham County Sheriff announced a suspension of the physical enforcement of eviction filings that were approved before Chief Justice Beasley’s order.

Governor Cooper announced an executive order to prohibit utility disconnections for people who are unable to pay and mandated utilities give residents a minimum 6-month grace period to pay outstanding bills. 

The City of Durham announced a suspension of water account cutoffs.

The City of Durham created a Water Hardship Fund to assist residents in paying their overdue bills.

Chief Justice Beasley entered three additional emergency orders to stay all pending evictions, to extend the time for filing a notice of appeal, and to create a new mediation program for evictions.

Ensure Access to Food

With children not receiving free school lunches, spikes in unemployment and income loss, and the existing prevalence of food insecurity, governments should provide ample resources and program funding to increase food security.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services announced that all families who receive food and nutrition services will receive the maximum allotment for their household size.

Governor Cooper announced a texting tool to help families find free food for children.

North Carolina WIC has made allowances for product substitutions as stores are frequently out of staple items.

In partnership with other groups, Durham Public Schools launched Durham FEAST to provide meals and fresh groceries to families experiencing food insecurity.

North Carolina created flexibility for Food and Nutrition Services participants to purchase groceries online using their EBT cards.

Durham Public Schools launched its Summer Feeding Program to provide free meals to children in the county.

The North Carolina General Assembly passed House Bill 1043: 2020 COVID-19 Recovery Act, which included funding for child nutrition services and funding for the North Carolina Food Bank.

Beyond government action, the Durham community has stepped up to support all of its fellow community members during this time of uncertainty. Thanks to these efforts, there are a number of available resources to Durham residents, from mental health tips to educational resources to health support and more. A compiled list of COVID-19 resources that is updated frequently can be found here.

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