Coronavirus in the District of Columbia

December 19, 2020 · 6 minutes read

Introduction

The contagious disease caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, also known as COVID-19 has had disastrous consequences worldwide. First and foremost, it has led to a dramatic loss of lives and presented unprecedented challenges to public health and the officials responsible for public health. Moreover, this pandemic in itself has caused massive socio-economic disruption.

Millions of people are at the risk of falling not only into extreme poverty but over 132 million more people could be undernourished by the end of 2020. Nearly 3.3 billion people are at the risk of losing their jobs and livelihood. A majority of informal economy workers have been affected the most due to a lack of social protection and access to quality healthcare (Impact of COVID-19 on People’s Livelihoods, Their Health, and Our Food Systems, n.d.). It has become hard for people to provide for themselves and their families due to one reason – the loss of jobs to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is critical for governments at all levels to respond swiftly to this pandemic to ensure adequate resources and assistance is directed toward the public. Having lived in the District of Columbia for the past year, I feel it is imperative to see what actions the Council of the District of Columbia has undertaken.

The District of Columbia

Figure 1: Unemployment Rate in the District of Columbia (March 2018 - November 2020)

The unemployment rate in the District of Columbia drastically rose in March and peaked in April, as seen from Figure 1. On March 24, 2020, Mayor Muriel Bowser issued the Mayor's Order 2020-053 that restricted business activity in the District and directed the closure of non-essential businesses. The following week, on March 30, she also issued the “Stay at Home” order. On May 21, 2020, the ReOpen DC Advisory Group that came into being on April 23, 2020, recommended a four-phase approach for reopening the District area.

Certain activities, where the risk of transmission was determined to be low coupled with strong safeguards in place, were allowed to restart in the first phase on May 29, 2020. The “Stay at Home” orders were lifted, but there was still a prohibition on gatherings of more than ten people. This meant that non-essential retail businesses could be open for curbside pick-ups and deliveries, but indoor shopping was still prohibited. Barbershops and salons were allowed to operate by appointment only. All in all, all non-essential businesses were only allowed to conduct minimum business operations, curbside pickup or delivery, or home-based services. (Phase One | Coronavirus, n.d.).

At the time of writing this article, we're in phase two of reopening DC. This meant that things were starting to look as if they're coming back to normal. On December 18, 2020 phase two was extended. Restrictions were imposed again on indoor dining, non-essential businesses still required to telework, among other things. (Phase Two | Coronavirus, n.d.)

I believe that the unemployment rate dropped due to these reasons as we see from Figure 1 after the month of May. But at what cost? We see from Figure 2 below that the number of cases has just been rising for the past months. Particularly, Ward 4 was hit the worst compared to other wards in the District, with Wards 5, 7 and 8 trailing not so behind. Wards 2 and 3 on the other hand seemed to have lower cases compared to all other areas in the district.

Progression of COVID-19 in the District of Columbia (by Ward) Figure 2

But that brings me to an important question and the crux of this article - Was the DC Council prepared for this?

Preparedness of the DC Government

First and foremost, I believe that a government must be prepared for a public health disaster of such magnitude. Hospitals need to be stocked. The government needs to ensure that people are receiving good and affordable health care. From Figure 3 below we see that most deaths occurred in Ward 8. Economically speaking, Ward 8 has one of the lowest median household incomes in the District of ~40k USD. That is followed by Ward 7 and Ward 5, with Wards 6 and 1 trailing behind Ward 3 which has a whooping median household income of ~122k USD (Household Income by Race and Ward, 2017). This is alarming since we could say that even in the capital of the state, health care is only a privilege of the rich.

Deaths due to COVID-19 in the District of Columbia (by Ward) Figure 3

But what about the hospitals? Were they equipped enough to deal with the privileged?

Figure 4: Hospital Logistics during Cornavirus pandemic in DC (2020)

In Figure 4, we see the total number of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds and ventilators that were available for use throughout 2020, starting March. I believe that the hospitals are equipped to deal with people coming into the hospital. But, the problem is, not everyone can afford to go to the hospital. This is probably why we see so much logistical supply in terms of ICU beds and ventilators. The underprivileged dying because of COVID-19, especially from Ward 8 could have been given access to these excess supplies.

The government should set up a system where healthcare like this that is available can be accessed by all, without the fear of not being able to pay for healthcare, especially during such a crisis. These available resources that are not used by anyone can be directed to the needy. I believe that with better planning and resource diversion, a better public health ecosystem to combat this virus and keep more people alive can be achieved.

Conclusion

Coronavirus has affected all of us. Our lives have changed. I speak from a point of privilege where the things that have personally affected me are not relevant in the bigger picture. I was merely affected by the closure of school, restaurants, among other things. The only thing I can't do is meet new people or go out on the weekends as I used to. But I believe this does not apply to the not so privileged. My understanding is simple. If you're poor, you're probably losing your job. If you're poor, you're probably dying. The government is doing its best, but it's not enough because the numbers point out very differently.

Families living in some wards in the District of Columbia are not as privileged as families living in Wards 2 or 3. There have also been more deaths in those wards, such as Wards 8, 5, 7, and 4 as seen from Figure 3 due to COVID-19. I believe it is the need of the hour for the DC Council to consider this and divert health care resources to these underprivileged areas so that the loss of human life can be minimized.

References

Household Income by Race and Ward. (2017, January 4). DC Economic Strategy. https://dceconomicstrategy.com/household-income/

Impact of COVID-19 on people’s livelihoods, their health and our food systems. (n.d.). Retrieved December 19, 2020, from https://www.who.int/news/item/13-10-2020-impact-of-covid-19-on-people's-livelihoods-their-health-and-our-food-systems

Phase One | coronavirus. (n.d.). Retrieved December 21, 2020, from https://coronavirus.dc.gov/phaseone

Phase Two | coronavirus. (n.d.). Retrieved December 21, 2020, from https://coronavirus.dc.gov/phasetwo