By Ona Alston Dosunmu
Seemingly overnight we went from meeting, hugging, hopping on trains and planes, eating and drinking in bars and restaurants. We went to yoga. We played full-contact sports—both recreational and professional. Kids went to school. Parents went to work. We went to religious services. Now we are holed up where we live in hopes of defeating a microscopic enemy, the likes of which most of us alive today have never encountered. For many of us, the specter of field hospitals, quarantines and life-or-death triage decisions in the wealthiest, most powerful nation on the face of the earth would have been difficult to comprehend as recently as two months ago.
The rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States and the resulting social distancing and economic fallout have laid bare weaknesses in our society and failures of our institutions. Our nation’s food insecurity and the reality that many people are literally a paycheck away from hunger are evidenced by long lines at food banks and by the reluctance of some jurisdictions to close schools out of fear students would go hungry. As those who practice criminal law can attest, the overcrowded conditions in our jails and prisons present tremendous risks not just to those detained—some of whom have not been found guilty of any crimes—but for everyone involved in the criminal justice system.
These risks are present even for those whose involvement is tangential—a court reporter or clerk, for example. California’s homelessness crisis presents another risk for the rapid spread of the virus. How can you shelter at home if you have no home? And I am confident that when we look back on the aftermath, people of color will have fared worse by any measure than others. Our society is only as safe and secure as the least amongst us is.
Organizations and individuals who provide assistance when disaster strikes divide their work into phases. The response phase entails immediate protection of life, property and the environment. Then comes the recovery phase, the sometimes long path back to normalcy. We are in the middle of the response phase to this pandemic. We’re all trying to figure out how to stay fed, healthy and keep roofs over our heads. But recovery will come and when it does, the lawyers of California and across the country will have work to do.
My hope for CLA and its members is that our profession will rise to meet the demands of the post-disaster recovery and the the long road back to normalcy with the selflessness, creativity and dedication that so many are showing now, in the midst of the crisis. (For more information about the incredible way CLA and its members are rising to the immediate challenges, see the column by our President Emilio Varanini and our Chair Chip Wilkins.)
Like many pressing social, political and economic challenges, the tools to repair the gaping holes in the social safety net may be found—at least in part—in law, government and public policy. Attorneys are well-positioned by training and practice to wield these tools and address the underlying social and economic issues that are exacerbating this crisis and hindering an effective response. Doing so will ensure that our society is better positioned to weather the next crisis.
We will get through this and one day we will return to some sort of “new normal.” We don’t yet know when that day will be but I am confident that when the day comes, lawyers will step into the breach to solve the biggest problems revealed by this unprecedented public health crisis. And the California Lawyers Association will be right there with the legal community every step of the way.