Editorial: COVID provides road map for change

The Island Now

Before the COVID pandemic stuck in March 2020, 259,000 people on Long Island were suffering from food insecurity, according to Paule T. Patcher, chief executive officer of Long Island Cares Inc.

That’s about 9 percent of the 2.8 million people living in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

During the pandemic, the number of people – men, women and children – facing the possibility of going to bed hungry nearly doubled to 485,000, said Patcher, whose organization brings together resources for the benefit of the hungry and food insecure.

That amounts to nearly 17 percent of the people living on Long Island.

And yet If you live on the North Shore of Long Island, you may find yourself wondering where all those people live.

This is not surprising since Nassau is one of the most segregated suburban counties in the United States. And one byproduct of this is ignorance of what is taking place nearby, sometimes in a neighboring town.

The pandemic has brought into stark relief a wide range of disparities between whites and people of color in Nassau County ranging from access to health care to educational resources to jobs that put people at risk.

Rebecca Sanin, the president and CEO of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, said she believes the pandemic revealed the “tremendous disparities in our region that people have sort of been able to close their eyes about. Now, because of COVID-19, we’ve been able to unmask those inequities.”

We hope Sanin is right. But we don’t share her confidence.

Does anyone recall any town, county or state officials talking about those disparities, let alone proposing a plan to address them? Neither do we.

But with President Joe Biden’s COVID relief beginning to arrive and the growing number of people vaccinated, this would be a very good time to start.

Patcher and Sanin were part of a town hall hosted by Blank Slate Media last Thursday on not-for-profits during the age of COVID that also included Regina Gil, the founder and executive director of the Gold Coast Arts Center, and Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the Family and Children’s Association.

The four panelists all have years of experience addressing those most in need in our community.

During the town hall, they offered both words of encouragement and words of warning for leaders on Long Island as well as a surprising consensus on what they believe is the county’s greatest need.

The encouragement was provided by Patcher, who reported how successfully government, corporations and Long Islanders had come together in response to the shocking growth in the need for food assistance.

Such was the scale of support, he said, that the demand for food was currently being met.

But Patcher and other panelists said that did not diminish the great task ahead of addressing those in need.

“One of the things we’ve come to understand is that, what we saw during [the pandemic] is a product of decades, in fact generations worth of neglect, chronic unemployment and chronic illiteracy,” Reynolds said. “When you look at the contrasting communities, Hempstead and Garden City, for example, and ask why is it that Hempstead has exponentially higher numbers of deaths than Garden City, well, I know why. Those disparities didn’t appear overnight and they won’t disappear overnight.”

Reynolds did not say it, so we’ll say it for him – race continues to play an outsized role in determining how you are treated on Long Island.

But interestingly the panel believed that the biggest challenge facing Long Island was not race or hunger but mental health.

Reynolds said the pandemic had seriously added to Long Island’s already large problem with drugs and alcohol and that we will be living with the effects of the pandemic on mental health for years to come.

And he was not alone.

“So, the county will be able to take care of their infrastructure and bail out the restaurants until everyone can come back, so this is a big move,” Patcher said. “I think President Biden is right, you have to go big if you want to bring the economy back. I think this is an opportunity for me, Rebecca, Jeff, Regina,  for everyone else regardless of what industry you work in, to stand up and demand that a majority of the money coming into the area be invested in mental health services. If we don’t invest it in mental health, a big chunk of the people that live on Long Island are not going to be well for a long time.”

Patcher said that during the pandemic Long Island Cares could no longer count on food banks to deliver food so his group began to take food door to door to people in apartments, many of whom were older.

What they found, he said, shocked them: people filled with fear and anxiety.

Reynolds and other panelists agreed that mental health issues, including drug and alcohol problems, grew at an alarming rate during the pandemic and would persist in the community for years to come without a large infusion of money.

Since mental health problems cut across race and income, we think this may also be an area where we are able to achieve bipartisan agreement on the need to spend money. And the need is definitely there.

Biden’s COVID relief package is a very large step forward in addressing poverty, particularly among children.

Perhaps more challenging is the disparity in public school education that creates an uneven playing field between rich and poor, Black and white, starting at a very early age.

Gil pointed out that art education can be an important tool to reach disconnected students and offer an outlet for them emotionally. She also noted that the arts can also be an important tool to bridge racial and religious divides.

But, she cautioned, the arts and art education are usually the first place where funding is cut. That, she said, needs to change.

We’d like to think that COVID-19 has opened our eyes to those around us and that our elected officials will listen to leaders battling on the front lines.

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