We Californians are generally a prideful people. If we were a country, we would rank as the world’s fifth-largest economy. We lead the country in technology and environmental policy. We sued the Trump administration 100 times and we are home to the country’s first woman vice president. Let’s cut to the chase: We are the Golden State.
But we also have a lot to be ashamed of. Like our history filled with the mistreatment of Chinese laborers, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and our elevation of Ronald Reagan to governor. Our unemployment system was such a spectacular technological failure that we gave billions of dollars in COVID relief funds to fraudulent claimants including people who resided in prison. We rank 41st among the states when it comes to funding our public school students, and almost a year into the pandemic, we are one of only five states that still have school closure orders.
California also has a particularly wide income disparity — among the highest in the country — which tarnishes the luster of the Golden State.
But just recently our government did something that should give Californians of all income levels hope and make us proud. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that starting next week, more vaccines will be allocated to our poorest, most vulnerable residents. This move is intended to fix the problem so aptly described by Dr. Efrain Talamantes: “There is a clear disparity every single time there’s a resource that’s limited.”
While vaccines will still be distributed according to the current tier system, 40% of the state’s vaccine supply will be reserved for people living in the 400 ZIP codes in the state that earn the lowest incomes — right now that equals about eight million people. That percentage is no accident; it was deliberately chosen to match the approximately 40% of COVID cases and deaths that occur in the communities ranking in the bottom quarter of socioeconomic environments.
Vaccine parity is not just a California problem — just yesterday Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis came under heavy fire over allegations of setting up vaccine drives in neighborhoods serving wealthy donors and developers, all while less privileged senior citizens lined up for hours to get their shots or were put on waitlists. Low-income Americans have been disproportionately hit by COVID; these populations bore the brunt of COVID cases and fatalities, but when vaccination began, they did not even come close to getting vaccines in the same number.
Case in point: Two neighboring communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, though separated by Highway 101, share the same public high schools. But East Palo Alto, one of the poorest cities, has suffered five times as many COVID cases as Atherton, one of the wealthiest. As of last week, only 10% of residents in East Palo Alto had received a vaccine compared to 44% of those in Atherton. While the populations of these locations are not entirely analogous (Atherton skews older), the fact that the average household income in Atherton is about eight times higher than in East Palo Alto surely has the gravest impact.
Here’s another example from Southern California: “New data continue to show that areas of Los Angeles County hardest hit by the pandemic have low rates of COVID-19 vaccinations, while inoculations are the highest in neighborhoods that have been relatively spared the worst of the coronavirus’ devastation.” This first sentence of the Los Angeles Times article tells the whole story.
On Wednesday night, however, California officials declared that our state wasn’t going to accept this lack of parity, equity and basic humanity anymore. The next day Gov. Newsom discussed the new policy in Stockton, California, standing in a gymnasium located in a ZIP code that will receive, finally, its fair share of the vaccine. He spoke of the need to “truly meet the moment” and commit to helping our hardest hit communities, which just so happen to be home to some of our lowest-paid workers. In California, we are taking bold steps to forge a new path forward.
“An old adage says, continue to do what you’ve done? You’ll get what you got,” proclaimed Newsom. And I am one Californian who couldn’t be more proud.
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