Five panelists gave their Thursday evening to ‘Reflect, Alabama, Alabamians in the time of COVID-19.’
The Facebook Live discussion, which addressed how each panelist’s jobs has been affected, featured Christopher Harress, journalist with AL.com and Reckon; Dillon Nettles, policy analyst with American Civil Liberties Unit of Alabama; Jessica Ross, director of the Washington County Public Library in Chatom; Marian Royston, seventh-grade social studies teacher at Hamlin Middle School in Roanoke; and Michael Saag, who founded UAB’s 1917 clinic.
Moderator Jessica Chriesman, chair of Alabama Humanities Foundation Young Professionals Board, asked them to share workplace challenges and more.
Health careSaag’s entire career right now is focused around the coronavirus; in fact, he’d just left the COVID-19 clinic before the virtual panel, he said, and attended in his scrubs.
“It’s turned the world upside down, not just for my field, but for the entire world, actually,” he said. “This is the first true global pandemic of our lifetime and what concerns me about how we as Alabama are responding is that I think everyone knows by now the basics of how the virus is transmitted through the respiratory route and what we can do to protect [ourselves]. The problem is that we as a state, we as a community are just not stepping up and that’s what concerns me.”
Saag said that as cases rise, so do the number of patients in the Intensive Care Unit.
“Hospitals are starting to fill up,” he said. “Not only are they filling up but clinics are changing how they’re operating. People who already had trouble getting access to care are having even more access issues.”
Additionally, elective procedures are being postponed again.
Saag took a question from the audience: “I hear so many people saying, ‘I think I already had COVID-19, so I do not have to wear a mask?’ Is that accurate?’”
“I had COVID, for sure, in early March,” Saag said. “I wear masks everyday, I wear masks when I see patients, because why? I don’t know if having it produces protective immunity. We don’t know that. Everyone has to remember, this virus has only been in the human species for less than six months.”
JournalismHarress spoke about how COVID-19 changed the world of journalism.
“I think some of the main challenges that we face are around ethics and kind of deciding what our role would be in this pandemic and how much on-the-ground reporting should we do, how close we can get to people, what is safe,” he said.
Restrictions have changed over the course of the pandemic, Harress said, which has changed the roles for journalists. That includes the challenge of reporting against social media, meaning the average Twitter user may believe they are reporting solid news, when in fact, they are helping spread disinformation.
“I think in this case, we’ve seen a severe increase in that and that’s made everything very difficult because suddenly you start to incorporate the ‘fake news’ element because everybody’s become an amateur epidemiologist,” Harress said.
Additionally, although not to the extent of those in the healthcare field, journalists put themselves at risk by being ‘on scene’ or reporting in-person.
GovernmentNettles addressed concerns from the side of Alabama government. He began by saying that while he works for the ACLU, he does not consider himself a ‘government player.’
“There’s no secret that the need for a robust government response in this moment has just been that — a need,” Nettles said.
The ACLU is celebrating it’s 100th year, but this pandemic has been a challenge unlike any the organization has faced in those 100 years, according to Nettles.
“However, it has obviously presented a unique challenge, but an opportunity for us to show up in new and different ways and that’s exactly what we have been working to do,” he said.
“We’ve worked to make sure that the most vulnerable communities at this time are seen and heard, we’re ensuring that their needs are centered for our government actors.”
Nettles said part of what the ACLU has been doing is making sure that the government’s efforts are narrowed and focused, not too broad to do good.
One of ACLU’s biggest challenges since the pandemic began was working for the release of incarcerated individuals in Alabama, he said.
“That was frankly a clear public health response,” Nettles said. “We know that these are areas that have been tinderboxes for infection and the spread of the virus.”
Additionally, the ACLU has been pushing for testing for incarcerated individuals so affected men and women can be moved.
“We know that as long as, again, some of our most vulnerable populations in the state, and that remains people who are incarcerated, they are people within our state who should not be erased and should not be invisible to us. So as long as they are also at risk, we are all also still at risk from a public health perspective.”
There is a conversation associated with race that occurs when considering the incarcerated population and how it will be affected by the coronavirus.
“We have a state that is 26 percent black, about 67 percent white, but where black people make up more than 40 percent of our jail population across the state and over 50 percent, nearly 55 percent, of our prison population,” Nettles said.
“And so again, when we go back to talking about the virus and its spread through these facilities, you have to obviously imagine that it will mostly impact black people, particularly black men who are in these facilities.”
The second major challenge the ACLU has been working to address is voting in the state. The primary was pushed back, Nettles said, but there is work being done on mail-in voting, curb-side voting and more.
“The unfortunate aspect is that that has not now also been applied to the November general election,” he said. “We know that in a general election there’s going too be much more people voting.”
EducationRoyston said teachers have been affected like other professionals.
“Back in early March there was a lot of speculation,” Royston said. “There were some school systems around the state that were taking their own action but from the statewide level, everybody was given the directive at the same time that schools would be shut down for a time and so we had to very quickly adapt.”
Devices had to be provided for students, curriculum pushed online and classrooms sanitized, she said. The school systems also had to consider how they could continue to feed children who were relying on school meals.
Of course, there is always a silver lining.
“Our society by and large appreciates teachers a lot more than they did at the outset of this outbreak,” Royston said.
The school system has to face the challenge that there is no longer structure to education. Teachers don’t know what’s next and neither do students, she said.
“Based on my reading and based anecdotally on what I’ve seen of the students, our greatest challenges for the pandemic for education remain to be seen,” she said. “We don’t know what psychological impacts that the students are going to have as a result of this pandemic and being in quarantine.”
Another silver lining in education is the flexibility of the system as a whole.
“We have genuinely shown how adaptable we are and how resilient we are,” Royston said. “And in that, I find that a lot of things that we previously said ‘no’ to that, all of a sudden, we’re saying ‘Oh yeah we can do that,’ or ‘I suppose that’s acceptable.’ All of a sudden in the education field, standardized tests are not the end all, be all. It’s not the hill that we have to die on.”
Finally, Ross spoke about the difficulties of the pandemic hitting Washington County.
Ross described the Washington County Public Library is kind of a meeting space or hub for the community, which obviously couldn’t happen due to COVID-19.
“We took the gathering space that’s normally the library building and took that online and were able to adjust to having people meet in a safe environment so that we could continue to keep our public informed,” Ross said.
What this meant was hosting virtual meetings through Zoom for all kinds of needs such as county commission, planning meetings, hospital board meetings, etc, she said.
“Our library is really looking toward the future and how we can help our communities,” Ross said. “Because we hear from people that they have lost their jobs. There was an announcement yesterday that one of the large companies in our area is going to be laying off more than 100 people.”
“ … [The library] applied for a grant to put a career center in our library in a small business development center. We want to be here to help people recover from this in the wake of this crisis.”
The discussion was hosted by the Alabama Humanities Foundation Young Professionals Board, the David Matthews Center for Civic Life and and the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts & Humanities at Pebble Hill.
The full discussion can be viewed online at https://www.facebook.com/alabamahumanities/videos/871473066696423/?v=871473066696423.