DC's Community Response to COVID-19: A Lesson in Solidarity

As the US trudges through year two of the global COVID-19 pandemic — the end of which is at least now partially visible — equal parts praise and criticism have begun to mount towards the various approaches taken by its states. While many strategies have been attempted, one thing has become abundantly clear to the citizens of DC: the Bowser Administration's vaccination plan stalled the District's ability to keep up with vaccination rates of states across the nation. At time of print, DC’s rates have finally caught up — but early on in the rollout, residents of the District were frustrated by long waitlists, faulty registration systems and a vaccination rollout plan that, until recent weeks, was immunizing its population at just over half the national rate.

Despite this failure of governance, the COVID-19 pandemic has also birthed a massive network of residents who have come to understand that when policy fails, it is up to those who live, and not just work, in Washington to care for each other.

The District government's missteps — from lack of mass distribution centers to issues with antiquated IT infrastructure — have been well documented both in print and online. Yet to those who have been following these plans from the beginning, the crisis of vaccine access was not just foreseeable, but probable. One of the earliest warning signs was the absence of any explicit intention to ensure vaccination equity in one of the most diverse cities in America.

When describing its approach to vaccinating historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups, the official DC COVID-19 Vaccination Plan stated that such populations would be captured within the general eligibility phases. The results were glaring. When this article was written, DC — a district where most of its residents are Black — has failed to vaccinate its Black, Latino and other POC populations at the same rate as their white counterparts. Vaccine hesitancy, a justification commonly used to defend inequalities in vaccine distribution, cannot alone explain this divide. It cannot cover for the fact that Wards 7 and 8, which contain the city’s largest Black populations, lag significantly behind the rest of the district, with vaccination rates of merely 23% and 18%, respectively, at time of print.

Residents of DC are used to being overlooked by both press and politicians, but even when notice is paid to the local politics of Washington, attention tends to be restricted to just that: the politics, and not the people. Little has been published on the wide network of organizers, volunteers and mutual aid that has organically grown out of response to the pandemic. This network, an informal collaboration between more structurally organized groups and decentralized mutual aid efforts (often distinguished by DC ward), has developed entirely from the ground up since the start of the pandemic. Together, volunteers across the District have begun to reach out to their respective communities, offering whatever assistance is most needed.

As the pandemic was reaching its peak in the winter months of 2020 – 21, members of the local DSA Medicare for All working group began reviewing DC’s official rollout plan. Realizing the deficiencies inherent to the District’s approach, volunteer organizers developed a parallel plan to collaborate with the office of Councilmember Janeese Lewis George on vaccine outreach and registration assistance. A strong supporter of community-based action, Councilmember Lewis George emphasized the importance of this sort of cross-cutting cooperation, stating in a statement provided for this article: "One of the most important lessons from this pandemic is that achieving health equity starts with meeting people where they are and empowering communities. In the fight against COVID-19, community engagement serves as a model for what is possible when groups reach across organizational silos and focus on building trust and solidarity.”

The community efforts made this past year are certainly not the first of their kind, but it is hard to ignore the degree to which COVID-19–based outreach has woven together volunteers from different groups, wards and backgrounds. Since the initial plans for the mentioned community-based services were formed, organizations such as Sunrise Movement DC and the Working Families Party have collaborated with DSA in vaccine registration outreach. Members of these groups have pooled both resources and volunteers, culminating in a door-knocking and phonebanking campaign focused on reaching the most vulnerable residents in Ward 4. Sunrise DC, along with other partners, began working with local officials to expand vaccine registration in Wards 1, 5, 7 and 8.

Though best known for efforts related to electoral campaigns, these organizations demonstrate a path forward in community engagement, where material outreach is the underlying goal. The pandemic has also provided avenues through which pre-existing relationships can be leveraged to new ends. Tenant organizers with previous building ties to groups such as the DSA have opened the door to vaccine registration drives in areas difficult to reach by traditional door-knocking methods.

Another forefront of community-based outreach can be found in the growing network that is DC mutual aid. Often built and organized at the neighborhood or ward level, these groups demonstrate the diversity in tactics needed to combat COVID-19. In Ward 6, Serve Your City stepped up in response to the ongoing crisis by organizing and delivering supplies and food to critical populations, from families struggling to stay afloat, to seniors and the unhoused. Mutual aid volunteers and organizers have crossed borders to join efforts in Wards 7 and 8, as activists from a variety of local organizations used previous networks to form and develop inter-community relationships.

These partnerships resulted in a mutual aid hotline where community members can request assistance (whether the need is directly caused by the pandemic or tangential) and be served by the nearest volunteer. Formed in spring of 2020, Ward 4 Mutual Aid has collaborated with various food banks, community kitchens and local shelters to provide support to families in need in the form of hygiene supplies, food, clothing and other necessities. All eight DC ward mutual aid groups, inlaid with the common goal of establishing long-term structures of support built primarily on neighbor-to-neighbor relationships, have become an effective bulwark against COVID-19.

The efforts described here do not even begin to adequately convey the full extent to which DC residents have taken responsibility for their own communities. Attention to DC organizing efforts often focus on electoral engagement, as calls for statehood and increased direct representation in the government that dictates so much of DC life continue to be made by activists and officials alike. But as deserved as this representation is, DC — specifically the people of DC — are not satisfied to sit and wait in the interim.

This pandemic is only one of the many times in which residents of DC have found themselves short-changed by systems of power. By relying on a partly ad hoc, partly long-planned matrix of volunteers and local leaders, the city is doing all it can to ensure that the people do not suffer while the political machine plods along. DC may be in Washington’s backyard, but it is the people who call it their home who are already caring for it.

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