A Year of COVID-19: What we’ve learned along the way

By Bobbi Watt Geer, President and CEO, United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania

We have come such a very long way since March 13, 2020. Like so many of you on that day, the team here at United Way packed up our desks, prepared home offices and braced for what would come next.

In January and February of 2020, our leadership team watched news of the COVID-19 pandemic spreading and began mapping out steps we could take to prepare. To be honest, it felt like a training exercise at the time. Some terrible disaster preparedness drill that we hoped we wouldn’t need. Our 211 helpline, partner agencies, funders and officials from across the region worked together to identify what we thought we’d need and we felt ready.

If I could go back, I would tell myself, “Buckle up; it’s going to be a bumpy and long ride.” In all of our planning and conversations, we never imagined the crisis would continue for a year or more. But thanks to that initial preparation and strong relationships, we’ve been able to band together, shoulder-to-shoulder, and move forward.

While the road to recovery still stretches long before us, we’ve learned some incredibly valuable lessons along the way.

Work can happen anywhere. And it has! ­­From home offices and back porches to kitchen tables or right on the playmat, the flexibility to work when, and where, you can has been vital to keeping businesses, organizations and families going. Process and bureaucracy have their place, but, when it comes to our work over the past year, lives are on the line, and process had to be shortened. It’s not important where we work as long as we are working as hard and as fast as we can to identify problems and solutions.

We can’t face problems we can’t see. Three crises have shown themselves: the pandemic, an economic emergency and deep racial disparities. The pandemic has amplified the economic crisis and racial inequities that were already in place. Black and Latino/a/x Americans face COVID-19 death rates almost three times that of White Americans, yet research shows that there is no innate vulnerability to the virus among those individuals. Instead, it is social and environmental factors including higher instances of jobs requiring contact to others, unequal access to well-resourced health care, health insurance and hospitalization in general. This triple crisis is forcing us to take a hard look in the mirror and face what’s looking back. We will continue putting these issues in the spotlight, raising awareness, and encouraging us all to do our parts in dismantling economic and racial inequities.

It’s time to ditch ‘normal.’ Any lifechanging event – new job, getting married, moving, having a child, divorce – changes your perspective. You don’t go through one of those events without some pivot to your reality, and this pandemic is a significant shared shift in our lives. There’s no going back to normal and we shouldn’t; we’ve learned too much to go back to the way things were. And by the way, that wasn’t working anyhow. Too many people were living at or below the poverty line and found themselves unable to make ends meet before the pandemic hit. So, I don’t want us to go ‘back to normal,’ I want us to be better.

When we come together, we can persevere. There’s no problem we can’t solve by combining our shared experiences and knowledge. One of United Way’s greatest roles so far has been convening funders, corporations and agencies to address our region’s challenges quickly, creatively and effectively. With commitment, respect and an honest desire to help, nothing can stop us.

There is much work to do to as we help our region recover. Many in our communities are still hurting, but we’ll be here to help each step of the way. I am proud of United Way’s work this past year and how our network of donors, volunteers, board leaders and staff has contributed. We have all leaned in to take responsibility and leaned on each other to find ways to make tomorrow easier than the day before. And that’s the recipe for a better future