The United States has largely failed in its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike other countries that have eliminated community transmission or suppressed it to low levels, US officials have allowed high levels of the virus to circulate and tolerated the subsequent mass death that has accompanied such a lax public health approach. In addition to needless, preventable sickness and death, another consequence of this state failure has been to shift the moral burden of pandemic decisionmaking onto individuals.
When COVID-19 first hit New York City, incarcerated people, oversight agencies, advocates, doctors and epidemiologists sounded the alarm about the humanitarian crisis the pandemic would unleash in our jails and prisons. The danger was clear: Without swift and dramatic action, sickness and death would sweep NYC’s correctional facilities and inevitably spread to the broader community. The ensuing decarceration effort, imperfect as it was, yielded less crowded jails, which undoubtedly slowed the spread of COVID and saved lives.
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