Opinion: Personal reflection on COVID-19, those most at-risk

Recently, our Governor made the perilous decision to ignore the warnings of public health experts, federal agencies, and state leaders and announced that Georgia would become one of the first states in the nation to reopen. Gov. Brian Kemp continues to underestimate this virus, which is a serious threat. It can happen to healthy people, it can happen to young people, and it can happen when you least expect it.

I know, because it happened to me.

It has been nearly two months since I learned I had contracted COVID-19 – a virus that took three weeks, two trips to the ER, and hundreds of dollars in bills to recover from. And yet, I know I am one of the lucky ones: when I first suspected I had coronavirus, I was able to be seen the next day by my primary care physician, get tested within a week, and take time off from work to recover at home from this disease. These seemingly simple steps towards my recovery are all privileges that many Georgians don’t have right now.

When I think about the hundreds of thousands in our state who don’t have health insurance, paid sick leave, and job security, I think first of the domestic workers who are working on the front lines of this epidemic.

As the Deputy Political Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), I hear every day from domestic and home care workers whose lives have been turned upside down by the impacts of COVID-19. When Georgia first began social distancing, these were among workers who had little choice but to continue going to work, exposing themselves and their families to the virus every single day.

Domestic work cannot be done remotely – by definition, it’s work that takes place in someone else’s home. Nor is taking leave an option when you live paycheck to paycheck without benefits or job security. When I was ill, I was able to stay in bed and recover with the peace of mind that my husband was caring for our child. For domestic workers, many of whom are the heads of household or single parents, this is simply not an option. That’s not to mention that nearly all domestic workers operate without health insurance that so many of us take for granted, and a recent national survey conducted by NDWA found that half of all domestic workers lack access to medical care.

Even for those who are still healthy enough to work, many domestic workers are facing cancellations of employment without severance or furlough pay. The same survey found that job losses for domestic workers and caregivers are far higher than in the general U.S. workforce – and three-quarters of domestic workers are currently afraid they’ll be evicted because they can’t afford their next rent check.

Crystal Crawford, a nanny in Atlanta, is one of the many domestic workers whose business has been directly impacted by this crisis.

“I’ve already had two clients cancel, and my evening and weekend clients that use me on occasion have stopped calling because parents are staying at home with their kids,” said Crawford. “My supervisor is stressed because we may lose donors that support the nonprofit school that I work at. At this point, I’m concerned if I will have a job next school year.”

While reopening Georgia’s businesses may sound like it will relieve domestic workers’ economic pain, the truth is that this already-vulnerable population will only be placed at higher risk. Already, we’re seeing how differently this virus has impacted marginalized populations: more than 80% of all patients hospitalized in Georgia from coronavirus are Black, and five of the 20 counties in the nation with the most coronavirus deaths per capita are located in Southwest Georgia.

For Gov. Kemp to reopen our state now is playing games with the lives of the most vulnerable Georgians. Before we can safely reopen, we would need to dramatically ramp up our testing, especially in communities where we know people have been hit the hardest.

Testing isn’t the only area where Georgia is far from ready to go back to work. People don’t even have access to masks or to hand sanitizer, and the state is doing nothing to help them. We haven’t expanded Medicaid, meaning many people don’t have health care and so are avoiding getting tested.

Because our Governor won’t, I want to urge all Georgians to listen to the advice of their health care providers and stay home if they can. It’s important to understand that it’s not only those people who are showing symptoms or whose cases have been confirmed by testing that are spreading the virus. Many of those infected with the coronavirus don’t know it because they are asymptomatic. And in my case, it was almost a week from when the symptoms first started before I got a diagnosis.

Until testing is expansive and accessible for every community – particularly those that have lacked access to health care – we must stay home to protect not only our lives but the lives of the most vulnerable among us.

If we go back to work now, before the virus is under control and before we have widespread testing in place, we’re all taking a risk.But those taking the greatest risk are the domestic workers and other Georgians who lack access to health care and who can’t afford to take a day off if they get sick.

State Sen. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, represents District 39 and is chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia. She is also deputy political director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the deputy executive director at Care in Action.