Homeless People and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Homeless COVIDThe novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is affecting every American and people all over the world, but it does not affect everyone equally. The more than 500,000 Americans who are homeless are especially vulnerable—due to age, lack of access to health care, underlying medical conditions, and lack of access to information and news—and also pose a risk in terms of continuing to spread the virus.1

Outreach workers for homeless agencies and nonprofits across the country are attempting to spread the word about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic among the nation’s homeless population. However, they are rarely able to offer hygiene supplies or other necessities along with the news. The scarcity of supplies, such as hand sanitizer, masks, and tests, is impacting many Americans, but it can affect homeless people even more deeply, as they are often the last to receive such necessities in normal times.2

Currently, it is mayors and city government officials who are largely addressing the crisis among the homeless population. Jersey City, for example, is offering showers, meals, and hygiene kits to its homeless population. “We have witnessed how COVID-19 has had a devastating impact around the world on all of us, but when you think of those who have the least in society, they are even more vulnerable during this crisis,” said Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.3

Other cities have not been as prepared. In Houston, for example, when a homeless man tested positive for COVID-19, he was released back onto the streets before city officials, charitable organizations, and homeless advocates could find him a shelter.4 Other cities are also struggling to address the needs of the homeless population. In many major cities, organizations that serve the homeless rely on volunteers who are not willing or able to work during the pandemic.5

The state of California, which has the largest homeless population of any state, is primarily focused on finding shelter and providing space for quarantining individuals who might be sick.6 Governor Gavin Newsom explained his state’s aggressive actions in this way: “Helping these residents is critical to protecting public health, flattening the curve, and slowing the spread of COVID-19.”

Discussion Questions 

  1. Why do you think homeless people are so vulnerable to the spread of this virus?
  2. How should state and local governments address the spread of the virus among the homeless population?
  3. How high a priority should protecting the homeless population be? Why?
  4. Should the federal government do more & take steps to help states or to support the homeless population?
  5. Do you think governments do enough to protect or assist homeless people? Why or why not?
  6. Do you think shelter is a human right? Explain your reasoning.



Featured Image Credit: Brian van der Brug; Los Angeles Times
[1] Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/its-too-many/2020/03/21/7f2469d0-6bb1-11ea-b313-df458622c2cc_story.html
[2] Los Angeles Times: https://www.latimes.com/homeless-housing/story/2020-03-22/coronavirus-pandemic-homeless-outreach-shelters
[3] ABC 7 New York: https://abc7ny.com/society/jersey-city-offering-showers-meals-hygiene-kits-to-homeless/6045739/
[4] Houston 11: https://www.khou.com/article/news/health/coronavirus/homeless-man-who-tested-positive-for-covid-19-at-houston-hospital-released-back-onto-streets/285-394a71c2-7791-40e1-8ce7-80775db55fb5
[5] NBC Dallas Fort Worth: https://www.nbcdfw.com/news/coronavirus/homeless-services-in-dallas-pushed-to-limits-due-to-coronavirus/2337482/
[6] The Hill: https://thehill.com/changing-america/respect/poverty/488661-california-takes-precautions-to-keep-homeless-population
[7] Ibid.


Coronavirus, Prisons, and Detention Centers

Prison and Corona VirusIn the face of the spreading COVID-19 pandemic, government officials and medical experts are calling on people all over the world to practice social distancing.1 In general, this means canceling events and gatherings, avoiding large groups and crowds, and, when possible, staying home.

Many people are working from home,2 schools have closed or moved online,3 and businesses such as shopping malls4 and movie theaters5 have closed their doors.

However, for some populations, social distancing is not possible. This crisis is raising questions about what to do with people who are detained or in prison. Iran has released more than 80,000 prisoners to slow the spread of COVID-19.6 Officials in the United Kingdom are considering releasing prisoners, as estimates suggest that as many as 800 inmates may die if no steps are taken.7 New Jersey is considering releasing as many as 1,000 inmates in order to curb the outbreak,8 and several local and county governments have already taken similar steps at a smaller scale.9

READ: “Prisons And Jails Change Policies To Address Coronavirus Threat Behind Bars” from NPR

Inmates in New York City—one of the areas hardest hit by the outbreak—have already tested positive for COVID-19.10 Some public health experts have argued that prisons could be a hotspot for the virus, and have urged rapid, drastic action to slow the spread.11 But some prosecutors and elected officials, concerned about community safety, have argued that governments must be cautious about releasing inmates. They argue that prisons should instead take additional measures to protect inmates, improve access to hygiene, and provide better care.12

Some policymakers and advocates have also raised concerns about the nearly 40,000 people being held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers.13 One group has filed a lawsuit asking for the release of families in three federal detention centers in Texas, alleging that the government has not taken the necessary steps to prevent a viral outbreak in the detention centers.14

Thus far, none of the people being held in the centers has tested positive for COVID-19, but one ICE employee who works in multiple centers did test positive.15 Attorneys and advocates for the detained families argue that there has been very little testing, so it is not possible to say whether or not the virus is spreading in one or more of the detention centers.16

While many citizens are rightly concerned about their own safety and the safety and health of friends and family members in these times, policymakers, elected officials, experts, and advocates are debating what to do about COVID-19 in prisons and detention centers. One big question facing decision-makers is: “Is social distancing a right?”

Discussion Questions

  1. Imagine being stuck in close proximity with hundreds of strangers during an outbreak. How do you think you would navigate this difficult time?
  2. Do you think the government should release prisoners in order to slow or prevent an outbreak? How should officials decide who to release?
  3. Do you think the government should release immigrant families who are being detained in order to prevent an outbreak?
  4. How does your answer to the two questions above relate to your overall opinions about mass incarceration and immigration?
  5. Do you believe that social distancing should be considered a right during this pandemic? Who else, besides prisoners and detainees, is unable to practice social distancing?



Featured Image Credit: Michael Kirby Smith, The New York Times/Redux
[1] Johns Hopkins Medicine: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/coronavirus-social-distancing-and-self-quarantine
[2] The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/coronavirus-creating-huge-stressful-experiment-working-home/607945/
[3] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/12/well/family/coronavirus-school-closings-homeschooling-tweens-teens.html
[4] USA Today: https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2020/03/18/coronavirus-mall-closings-simon-closing-malls-starting-wednesday/2867904001/
[5] The Hill: https://thehill.com/homenews/news/487972-amc-and-regal-chains-close-all-movie-theaters-amid-coronavirus-crisis
[6] Business Insider: https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-covid-19-iran-releases-eighty-five-thousand-prisoners-2020-3
[7] The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/mar/21/prisons-could-see-800-deaths-from-coronavirus-without-protective-measures
[8] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/nyregion/coronavirus-nj-inmates-release.html
[9] Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/articles/jails-release-prisoners-fearing-coronavirus-outbreak-11584885600
[10] ABC News: https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/38-positive-coronavirus-nyc-jails-including-rikers-69731911
[11] Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/articles/jails-release-prisoners-fearing-coronavirus-outbreak-11584885600
[12] NPR: https://www.npr.org/2020/03/23/818581064/prisons-and-jails-change-policies-to-address-coronavirus-threat-behind-bars
[3] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/19/us/coronavirus-ice-detention/index.html
[14] Philadelphia Inquirer: https://www.inquirer.com/health/coronavirus/coronavirus-covid-19-immigrants-detention-lawsuit-berks-center-20200322.html
[15]Texas Monthly: https://www.texasmonthly.com/news/ice-detention-facilities-not-prepared-coronavirus/
[16] The Marshall Project: https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/03/19/first-ice-employee-tests-positive-for-coronavirus


Humans, Animals, and Viruses

PangolinThe COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak is believed to have started at a wildlife market in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. It is unclear which species transferred the virus to humans, but scientists largely agree on the point of origin.1 The 2002 outbreak of SARS, another type of coronavirus, began under similar circumstances.2

LISTEN: A 13-minute podcast from Scientific American on “COVID-19: The Wildlife Trade and Human Disease”

Some nations are already taking steps to ban the types of wildlife trade and markets that serve as hotspots for viral transmission from animals to humans. China announced a permanent ban on the wildlife trade in February, but the new law has loopholes that worry some conservationists.3 Vietnam has enacted a similar ban, and other neighboring nations seem poised to follow.4

VIEW: A series of infographics shows how the wildlife trade fits in the Chinese economy

Conservationists and animal rights activists have called for bans on the practice for decades, and now public health experts are joining that fight. “This issue is not just a conservation issue anymore,” said Grace Ge Gabriel of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “It’s a public health issue, a biosafety issue and a national security issue.”5

In a powerful essay published by The Hill, Cyril Christo writes, “The coronavirus did not manifest from nowhere. Our sadistic treatment and manipulation of animals for centuries has come back to haunt us. It is time for humanity to absorb the lessons of the animal world.”6

READ: Christo’s full essay in The Hill

Combating the wildlife trade will take significant energy and commitment from governments around the world. The livelihood of many people will be impacted as certain practices are outlawed,7 and the demand for the animals will likely remain, creating conditions for a thriving black market. Some of the ongoing animal trade was already illegal, but it persisted nonetheless.8

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think that wildlife markets should be banned? Why or why not?
  2. Given that most of this trade happens in other countries, how high a priority should this issue be for the United States?
  3. If other countries ask for financial and law enforcement assistance to regulate their wildlife markets, should the United States help? Why or why not?
  4. The conservationists and animal rights activists who oppose this trade also frequently argue against factory farming and criticize the U.S. beef and poultry markets. Do you think we should outlaw or significantly change farming practices? Why or why not?



Featured Image Credit: Getty Images
[1] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/05/asia/china-coronavirus-wildlife-consumption-ban-intl-hnk/index.html
[2] The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-we-still-havent-learned-the-lessons-from-sars-130484
[3] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/27/science/coronavirus-pangolin-wildlife-ban-china.html
[4] The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/18/billion-dollar-wildlife-industry-in-vietnam-under-assault-as-law-drafted-to-halt-trading
[5] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/19/health/coronavirus-animals-markets.html
[6] The Hill: https://thehill.com/changing-america/opinion/488295-coronavirus-should-be-a-wake-up-call-to-our-treatment-of-the-animal?fbclid=IwAR2F71sKV06KnEFyCShJDwinzGlx1ru67NmPvyYXm_nK-ksI0qXDnMJvdXk
[7] South China Morning Post: https://multimedia.scmp.com/infographics/news/china/article/3064927/wildlife-ban/index.html
[8] The Conversation: http://theconversation.com/coronavirus-has-finally-made-us-recognise-the-illegal-wildlife-trade-is-a-public-health-issue-133673



Gender, Identity, and Official IDs

Gender RightsIn February, Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) introduced the Gender Inclusive Passport Act (H.R. 5962) in the House of Representatives. The legislation currently has 25 cosponsors, all of them Democrats.1 If the bill becomes law, it would create a third gender designation on U.S. passports—unspecified (X)—to join the existing designations of male (M) and female (F).2

Currently, 15 states and the District of Columbia offer non-binary gender designations on identification cards, such as driver’s licenses.3 Some airlines are also moving to add alternative gender designations to their booking processes.4 At least ten other countries have non-binary gender options on their passports.5

“Respecting every American’s gender must extend to travel abroad,” said Khanna. “The freedom to move and express yourself no matter what should be guaranteed in this country. … Everyone in this country should have the freedom to express their preferred gender on passports.”6

Dana Zzyym, for example, has been unable to get a passport because they chose not to select either male (M) or female (F) when applying for a passport. Lambda Legal, arguing on behalf of Zzyym, stated, “Dana Zzyym just wants an accurate passport, an essential identity document that accurately reflects who they are. Yet, the State Department seems to be urging Dana to lie in order to exercise their right to travel.”7 One of Zzyym’s attorneys said, “Incredibly, the U.S. State Department is in effect requiring that Dana lie on the application form in order for them to get a passport. … Dana has been forced to challenge the State Department in court and, over the past several years, had to forgo multiple opportunities to present at international conferences because they cannot lawfully exit the country.”8

Opposition to Khanna’s bill largely hinges on the cost of implementation and security concerns. “In order to ensure that even a single passport issued to Plaintiff with an ‘X’ sex designation functions properly like a passport with an ‘M’ or ‘F’ designation, a host of modifications would be required to the entire system for issuing passports and recording their information,” the State Department noted in a legal brief. “The Department estimates these modifications would take approximately 24 months and cost roughly $11 million.”9

While the number of cosponsors for increased passport gender options continues to grow, it is unclear whether or not it will garner enough support to become law.

Students and teachers can learn more about the Gender Inclusive Passport Act and contact their members of Congress to weigh in by clicking here.

Discussion Questions

  1. What role do official IDs play in your life?
  2. Do you think your state should adopt gender non-binary designations on its official IDs? If your state already has these designations, how have they changed things?
  3. If you were a member of Congress, how high a priority would this issue be for you?
  4. If you were voting on this bill, how would you vote? Why?



Featured Image Credit: https://www.thedailybeast.com/california-state-capitol-flies-lgbt-pride-flag-for-first-time-eve
[1] Library of Congress: https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5962/cosponsors?r=4&s=1&searchResultViewType=expanded&KWICView=false
[2] Library of Congress: https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5962/text?r=4&s=1
[3] Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2020/02/24/passports-gender-netural-x-marker/
[4] Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2019/03/22/united-becomes-first-us-airline-offer-non-binary-gender-booking-options-including-mx/
[5] Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2020/02/24/passports-gender-netural-x-marker/
[6] Vox: https://www.vox.com/2020/2/25/21152857/nonbinary-gender-neutral-passport
[7] Lambda Legal: https://www.lambdalegal.org/news/co_20200122_lambda-legal-tenth-circuit-rule-intersex-veteran-passport
[8] Vox: https://www.vox.com/2020/2/25/21152857/nonbinary-gender-neutral-passport
[9] GovTrack: https://govtrackinsider.com/gender-inclusive-passport-act-would-allow-a-third-option-labelled-x-instead-of-male-or-a7b963159a3


Public Health, Public Policy & Personal Responsibility: Coronavirus and the Common Good

CoronavirusPublic health officials first encountered COVID-19, popularly called the coronavirus, in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. Thus far, the virus has infected over 89,000 people, killing more than 3,000.1 In the United States, there have been more than 100 cases in 15 states; at least six people have died, all of them in Washington state.2 The Trump administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization insist that the threat of the coronavirus is still manageable, all the while taking precautions to attempt to contain the outbreak.

In the United States, Congress is debating how much money to allocate in support of public health officials, doctors, and local and state governments working to address the spreading virus.3

WATCH: This five-minute video from the Washington Post offers a good overview of the outbreak, the official responses, and symptoms

Coverage of the coronavirus has highlighted some issues with equality and equity in U.S. health care. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar suggested last week that the price for any COVID-19 vaccine would likely be set by the company or companies that produce the vaccine, meaning that a vaccine may not be affordable for everyone.4 This angered many progressives and community advocates, and raised questions about whether or not the government should subsidize vaccines.5 Members of Congress are fighting over how best to address this issue.6

Covid-19 The outbreak has also raised another important equity issue: the ability to take time off work. It is recommended that people who are feeling sick or are worried that they may have been exposed to the coronavirus stay home from work or school and avoid public spaces.7 However, doing so is not always possible for hourly employees in the service industry, such as restaurant and retail workers.8 This has called attention to issues such as paid time off9 and employment security.10

WATCH: Channel 4 News on “Coronavirus: UK Low-Paid Hospital Cleaners Fear Taking Sick Days”

While some of these public health and public policy challenges are short-term, the coronavirus is also highlighting underlying structural problems. In the light of the presidential campaign, issues involving equity, health care, and workers’ rights have taken on new urgency.

Discussion Questions

  1. What have you heard about the coronavirus from the news? Social media? Friends and family?
  2. Do you live in a community that is currently impacted by the outbreak? How are local officials responding? How has your school life changed?
  3. Do you think the government should provide a vaccine to all Americans if/when it becomes available?
  4. Should the government provide special assistance to low-income workers and others who cannot afford to take time away from their jobs?
  5. Does this outbreak shape the way you think about any other policy issues, such as trade or health care?



[1] The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/27/what-is-covid-19
[2] CBS News: https://www.cbsnews.com/live-updates/coronavirus-outbreak-death-toll-us-infections-latest-news-updates-2020-03-03/
[3] NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/03/02/810117760/lessons-from-u-s-hospitals-caring-for-covid-19-patients
[4] Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/joshuacohen/2020/03/01/addressing-the-issue-of-coronavirus-vaccine-affordability/#30442555c789
[5] Common Dreams: https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/02/27/outrage-hhs-chief-azar-refuses-vow-coronavirus-vaccine-will-be-affordable-all-not
[6] The Hill: https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/485800-vaccine-costs-emerge-as-roadblock-to-coronavirus-funding-deal
[7] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/03/success/coronavirus-remote-work/index.html
[8] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/01/upshot/coronavirus-sick-days-service-workers.html
[9] MarketWatch: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/its-a-very-unfortunate-conundrum-as-coronavirus-spreads-the-cdc-urges-sick-workers-to-stay-home-but-what-if-you-dont-get-paid-sick-leave-2020-03-02
[10] Vox: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/2/27/21155901/coronavirus-in-us-spread-paid-sick-leave