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Sweeney: COVID-19 will reshape our priorities and our institutions

Senate President Steve Sweeney | March 26, 2020 | Star-Ledger |


Crises of this nature have a habit of rearranging our priorities.

Many of us were disappointed to see March Madness canceled, the NBA season stalled or our favorite concerts and shows put off until further notice. But what I hope this global pandemic has also done is shine a light on the necessity of every layer of our society and more crucial than ever are those layers that most people hardly even notice.

What is truly essential to American life is much different than what we usually think, it’s not athletes, its not movie stars, it’s not even major banking executives. In the greatest global crisis of our lifetime, the most important people are doctors and nurses, grocery store clerks, the person on the manufacturing line making N-95 masks and the janitor keeping stores, offices and hospitals clean.

In moments like this, we realize that in certain times we may need a police officer, a firefighter or an armed service member, but at all times we need people in nursing homes, hospitals, the pharmacy, delivering produce and collecting garbage. We need institutions like the department of health and the administrative workers processing unemployment applications.

This is the lifeblood of America – the workers, programs and institutions that make sure our everyday lives roll on. This is what makes New Jersey’s worker protections so important.

Not everyone can be an athlete, a rock star, a stock trader, or a tech startup CEO, nor should we want them to be. We need service workers, construction workers, shelf-stockers, administrators, manufactures and scientists. No, not everyone can be a millionaire but everyone should make a living wage. Everyone should have comprehensive and affordable healthcare, they should be guaranteed earned sick leave and paid family leave and they should not fear of feeling sick or missing a single paycheck.

These worker protections show that We the People all play a part in a diversified society and economy, that we are stronger and more stable the more secure and protected our workforce stands. Social safety nets, along with equitable tax policy, not only protected the American middle class throughout the mid-20th century but fueled its growth.

Our current crisis, brought on by the COVID-19 virus and similar to the great depression, is revealing just how badly our federal policies and institutions need to be reshaped and reinvigorated in the face of this painfully clear reality. Looking closely, we can see the shift happen in real-time as Congress — gridlocked since the Democrats took the house — overcame partisanship to pass the largest stimulus package in the nation’s history. Together, they compromised to support workers, families, big business and small business, the elderly and our healthcare system. In essence, America.

Now, younger Americans are being asked to stay home at the expense of their financial livelihoods in large part to protect the health and well-being of older generations. But like other crises that have come and gone before, the coronavirus is going to define a new generation. A generation that will be stronger, wiser and clearer on the essential pillars in our society that keep America running because it lived through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just like the Great Depression led to the New Deal and the Civil Rights movement led to the Great Society, the events of today will have a defining impact on tomorrow because events like this remind Americans what America is about. While marred in individual suffering, past crises have reshaped our priorities and made government reset public policy so that more, not fewer, Americans have a shot at achieving the American dream.

In a few short weeks, we have all learned who and what is essential to this nation.

Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together. We have the opportunity to climb out the other side in better shape than when we fell in but that is going to take a collective focus on the people, workers and institutions that are proving so decidedly vital to us, as Americans.


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