Nurse Lisa Bastek talks with 100-year-old Annie Laura Downing about the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during “Senior Weekend” at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Va., February 2, 2021. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)
When August arrived, millions of Americans — most through no fault of their own — faced the loss of their dwellings with the expiration of a moratorium against evictions that had been put in place during the pandemic.
It was a moment that was inevitable. It has, for some, been postponed for a few weeks by President Joe Biden’s order that the CDC extend its eviction ban into early October for regions where a mutated version of the virus runs rampant.
Why did it ever come to this? Nine months ago, Congress appropriated $46 billion to help tenants delinquent in their rent get square with their landlords. Yet today, only a small fraction of it has been used.
The same could be said for tens of thousands of Virginians throughout the pandemic who lost their livelihoods solely because the coronavirus devastated their places of employment. To this day, many still can’t get a human at the Virginia Employment Commission to answer their repeated phone calls or respond to their properly filed electronic applications for the unemployment benefits they have earned.
The VEC has begun digging its way out of the backlog, but it took a lawsuit by legal aid groups and a federal court order for the VEC to finally hasten its snail’s pace in processing the tsunami of pandemic-related claims. There has yet to be any public accounting from VEC’s leadership for so catastrophic a failure at such a critical moment of need.
During the worst health crisis in more than a century, governments — particularly at the state and federal levels — have largely been plodding if not outright dysfunctional in devising and then executing plans to mitigate the pandemic’s awful toll.
Sure, the pandemic imposed hardships on public-sector agencies. But the same was true of private-sector interests that found ways to not only endure but lead the nation through the hard times. Some businesses did not make it. Many of those which did owe their survival in part to Uncle Sam pulling out his credit card and providing trillions of dollars in direct pandemic relief payments to ward off a second Great Depression.
The most awesome triumph was that of medical science, research and development, and the awesome ability of manufacturing to invent, test and produce the safe and effective vaccines that are the world’s surest passport through this tribulation.
Credit goes to the United States government – and the administration of former President Donald Trump – for green-lighting and bankrolling Operation Warp Speed, the accelerated vaccine “moon shot.” Then the government wisely stepped out of the way to let our strongest private sector industries do what they do better than anyplace on earth.
But beyond that, with a notable exception we will explore shortly, it’s hard to find an example of government at any level measurably and conspicuously advancing helpful processes during the pandemic.
As we all saw, Trump spent the balance of 2020 alternately denying the virulence of the coronavirus or, when the evidence was too indisputable for him to credibly dismiss, insisting that it would “miraculously go away.” The virus did what viruses do and created horrifying carnage and, because so few people got vaccinated, it is making a worrisome encore.
After Trump lost the presidency and it was pried from his fingers following the failed Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection effort he inspired, the Biden administration found itself weeks behind in its COVID-19 mobilization because Trump denied him a coordinated transition. Biden’s team devised a distribution regimen that at least established a semblance of order about the process. It prioritized shots in the arms for the most vulnerable Americans (the aged and infirm) and those on the front lines such as health care and essential workers and first-responders.
But when the states took over and expanded access for the general public, governments often couldn’t get out of their own way. Long lines of cars queued in stadium or school parking lots ran out of vaccines by midday. People registered, as they were told, on a crazy-quilt of uncoordinated government-run websites and languished for weeks without word of when or where they’d get their shots.
It wasn’t until pharmacy chains became primary dispensers of the vaccines that those seeking vaccinations could dispense with the tax-supported bumbling and get a shot. Supply at last began to match demand. “Vaccine tourism” — people traveling for hours to other parts of their own states or even to other states to get vaccinated — became a thing.
By April, vaccinations at your neighborhood apothecary were easy, and those who wanted them were able to get them. However, a year of flawed and often contradictory messaging about masking from the nation’s leading governmental health authorities failed to inspire confidence among many Americans. That made it possible to politicize and misrepresent basic biological science and allow crackpot vaccine conspiracy claims and outright lies to find an audience. Yes, evidently there are people willing to believe microchips can take liquid form and be injected into humans via a hypodermic needle and syringe.
It doesn’t help that the authoritative Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, squarely in the limelight throughout, has repeatedly sowed doubt and confusion by changing direction with the frequency of a weathervane. As late as last month, the agency scrapped mask recommendations for the vaccinated to incentivize people to get the shot. Then it abruptly reversed course two weeks ago, reimposing its universal masking recommendation for everyone in public indoor venues out of concern for the spreading Delta variant.
With summer now bending toward fall, the nation faces an uncertain future from a far more virulent and communicable coronavirus mutation overspreading the South. But for millions of Americans, that fear exists alongside the threat of being evicted from their apartments just in time for winter.
For the most part, governments have done an abysmal job getting the $46 billion in federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program payments into the hands of desperate tenants. Through June, only 10 percent of the money had been distributed. Just 15 states had distributed 10 percent or more of the federal rent-relief funds, and none did it better than Virginia.
From Jan. 1 through June 30, Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development distributed $223.2 million, or 43 percent, of its $524 million federal ERAP allocation, according to U.S. Treasury Department data. That was the best rate in the United States, well ahead of second-place Texas at 34 percent.
By July 14, Virginia had increased its distribution to $311.8 million, serving more than 48,514 rent-paying households and an additional 541 households who received mortgage relief payments. The average payment per recipient was $6,286, said DHCD spokeswoman Alexis Carey.
So credit government where it’s due in expediting the work of keeping Virginians devastated by a pandemic from becoming homeless. It also sustains landlords and property owners who have loans to service and bills and taxes they must pay to stay in business.
If we ever get to the point where this plague really is over, when enough people have done the right thing and gotten the vaccine, when masks are just an ugly memory of an awful time, then Virginia’s good work in keeping roofs over people’s heads might be looked back upon as government’s best act.
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