This week marks a year since the first COVID-19 executive order declared a public health state of emergency.
Through the year, we all have felt the pain of great personal tragedy for lost loved ones and neighbors. The virus was everywhere. It followed us to the grocery store and stood between us when we met with our families and friends.
At meetings with our 11th District COVID-19 Recovery Advisory Council last winter, we could see the fear in the faces of small business owners discussing possibly closing their doors for good. We heard it in the anguished voices of their employees who called our office for help in dealing with an overwhelmed unemployment insurance system.
We visited nonprofits partners like Fulfill and saw the mile-long line of people in cars waiting to get food for their families. Most of the people on those lines never thought they would be the ones asking for help.
Nor did most of the people who called our office because they’d lost their jobs and were behind on the rent or the mortgage, or their utility bills, and feared losing their homes. We heard despair in their voices. And anger. The clergy we work with throughout Monmouth County told us they were counseling more and more congregation members with depression and signs of mental illness.
Residents expressed frustration at being unable to visit their loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes. So many of us grown children got the call from a nursing supervisor and administrator that their parent or spouse or grandparent had died. Assemblyman Houghtaling, whose mother succumbed to COVID-19 while in a long-term care facility, was among them. Like thousands of other New Jersey families, Eric and his family weren’t allowed to be with their mother, even just to say goodbye.
The pandemic drove home shortcomings in the way we treat persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It shed new light on how many cracks there are for members of the disability community and our other neighbors in need to fall through.
We celebrated Black History Month in a climate of social unrest that has divided the country. The pandemic showed us - again - the wide racial divide in our healthcare system. We heard it again and again as we met with Black leaders throughout Monmouth County. Black doctors we met with at Jersey Shore University Medical Center told us of the deep distrust of the healthcare system in communities of color, where too many people are unable to access treatment beyond a visit to the emergency room.
The pandemic has humbled us, but we also have seen strength, resilience and innovation. We’ve seen it in the commitment of the small business community to stay open and the innovation of teachers, parents and school administrators to make sure children continue to learn.
We will never stop mourning the loss of loved ones. But we are seeing some light at the end of this long, dark tunnel. Hospitalizations are decreasing again. Vaccines, including the new Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, are reaching the public in greater numbers each week. New federal stimulus money should be on the way soon to residents, businesses, healthcare workers and local governments.
We will get through this together because, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that in spite of our differences, the future is a cause that we must fight for together.
Sen. Vin Gopal, Assemblymembers Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey