What 9/11 Can Teach Us About Responding to COVID-19

On the morning of September 11, 2001, my colleagues and I handed out water on Lower Broadway. We were lawyers who served some of the poorest communities in New York, but quenching the thirst of stunned victims proved to be the best thing we could do at the time.

In the ensuing months, we learned a lot about emergency response and the ways a city’s civic infrastructure should respond to a crisis. We used our legal expertise to assist thousands of New Yorkers get back on their feet.

In the process, we learned lessons about what the community’s needs were and how to pull different sectors together to meet them. These lessons could not be more important as the Covid-19 pandemic spreads.

First, a lot of people will need help — a lot of it.

Aside from a looming public health crisis, the toll on the economy will be devastating.  People will lose their jobs, get their hours slashed, and businesses will close their doors forever. This will have ripple effects throughout the economy.

People who never imagined they would file for unemployment or other benefits will find themselves forced to navigate an alien bureaucracy. Existing systems will be pushed to the breaking point, and will not be adequate to address the need. We will need to find new resources and new means and avenues of support.x

Second, we must be generous. Benefits and assistance must be easy to access and navigate, and existing programs — not just unemployment — will need to be expanded.

In the wake of 9/11, millions of generous Americans supported the September 11th Fund, which was administered by the New York Community Trust and the United Way of New York City. Not only did that fund assist families who had lost loved ones, but also individuals who were left in economic ruin that day.

A similar philanthropic effort, coordinated by charities across the country, will be needed in the current pandemic, and we should get a fundraising initiative underway immediately. Prominent philanthropies like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations could provide critical infrastructure support to local foundations that are closer to the need.

Third, nonprofits are going to get hammered, twice. They are going to face increased need for their services, while losing support from donors precisely when those services are needed most.  Across the country, nonprofits are already having to cancel and postpone fundraising events.

Emergency relief for frontline non-profit organizations responding to community needs must begin to flow immediately, before it is too late. Anyone making regular gifts to nonprofits should continue for as long as possible. And any philanthropic effort to support the direct victims of the virus should also provide financial support to the non-profits that will serve them.

Finally, we need to cooperate across sectors. One of the most important successes of the 9/11 response was that the government, non-profit, philanthropic, and private sectors all worked together.

Survivors were able to go to centers to meet with a wide range of service providers from public and nonprofit entities. Volunteers from private sector businesses provided critical assistance as well, and foundations supported such efforts. This kind of cooperation will again be critical, though such “centers” will have to be virtual.

The full impacts of the pandemic can’t be known yet — but we’ve been here before in some ways.

How Americans came together after 9/11, with the generous support of each other and concerned citizens around the world, can help chart a course forward through these unsteady and terrifying times.

Ray Brescia is a professor of law at Albany Law School who worked at the Urban Justice Center in New York City on September 11, 2001.

This op-ed was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and distributed by OtherWords.org.