Week 1: Jumping Right Into Social Distancing

Within the first ten pages of the National Center for State Courts’ 2019 Annual Report, you will find a section on “Preparing for a Pandemic.” In May 2019, NCSC coordinated the first-ever court focused National Pandemic Summit in Omaha, Nebraska. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Nebraska Michael Heavican said the Summit was long overdue. Twenty-five states and three territories sent teams to the Summit. 

Perhaps now more than ever, keeping a journal is helpful (not just because the days are beginning to blend together). Around March 9th, I traveled to Douthat State Park to take a nature break away from law school.  It was a great week! douthatmkI visited Natural Bridge State Park and completed a hike to the summit of Buzzard’s Rock. On day trips, I checked the headlines on twitter. The first time I remember knowing the coronavirus was a problem was on March 12th.

Also in early March, NCSC began providing updates on twitter (@StateCourts) about how courts were adjusting to the pandemic. So.. while rates of coronavirus in the U.S. were skyrocketing (particularly in my home state), at least American courts were continuing to function! And even if American rule of law has its issues, USAID rule of law projects can still greatly help improve access to justice around the world, right?

As I barreled down I-95 towards NCSC International Programs in late May, I hoped my internship this summer would help me answer that question (with a yes). I was planning to stay until August at Marymount University (I secured a better deal for intern housing at Marymount than any of the D.C. schools: single room, more affordable and closer to IPD).  Of course, it was mandatory that I wear a mask for check in. After I found Ostapenko Hall, parked and grabbed my mask, I glanced at my phone and noticed my first assignment from International Programs Senior Counsel Tim Hughes: Create a COVID-19 Field Office reopening guide. 

I remember feeling a bit concerned when I noticed that neither of the two resident assistants helping me check in were wearing face masks (although I kept my distance). One RA later told me she was a Biology Pre-Med student. As I moved into my dorm, I skimmed through the Intern Manual attached to my first assignment and noticed some new information: NCSC could be remote for interns for the whole summer! After discussing the matter with the lovely RAs at Marymount, and spending a night in Arlington, I returned back to Williamsburg. 

I was excited by the assignment. I had never been asked to draft a policy an entire non-profit organization would rely upon for guidance. I started to become overwhelmed thinking of all the partner countries I would need to research to write a policy. Did I need to research all of them? Not yet. I would base the Guidance on a memo IPD staff had created to reopen the Tunisia office. In preparation for my first meeting, I carefully edited the “Tunisia memo,” noticing formatting recommendations, typos, grammatical errors, and repetition. 

I quickly learned not to switch the “2-meter physical distancing policy” to 6 feet in my draft of the Guidance. I also began to consider the technological disparities that may be present in this global emergency. Did it matter all that much if IPD Headquarters could acquire N95 masks but Field offices could only obtain cloth bandanas? (The CDC says there is a difference in purpose/effectiveness). What about infrared thermometers (which a receptionist used to check my temperature before an appointment in Orlando, FL in early May) versus digital thermometers (a new one out of the box actually failed to give me a reading when I used it to check in at Marymount). On our zoom calls, someone from IPD would frequently joke: “What would we be doing without zoom?” So it certainly mattered whether Field Office employees had access to technology including zoom, skype, email and phone over paper mail. 

Drafting Guidance #2 allowed me to help NCSC create guidance to protect their employees from coronavirus. Of course, NCSC employees around the world were already keeping themselves safe. But, the assignment allowed me to create internal policy recommendations based on CDC rules, which we called precautionary principles, that responded to the conditions on the ground in each Foreign office country. It was a great first assignment because it helped me understand the organization of IPD. I began to consider just how difficult it must be to grapple with the history, problems, ruling elites and institutions in each country. Meanwhile, my role was just to help remind NCSC employees of some tips to stay safe, so that their essential work could continue. 

I hope to use this space to share some thoughts on how we may have gotten here. US RoL projects invite us to consider not just what other countries may learn from the US, but what we can learn from other countries. We are challenged to notice not just how we're helping other countries, but how we’re not doing enough.

This summer, while I’m safe in my apartment, the US infection rate continues to increase. Meanwhile, New Zealand is returning back to business as usual. In 2005, the U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina was a “national disgrace.” In 2017, one former President stated U.S. lack of healthcare was a “national scandal.” That was before COVID-19. A few months ago, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus called on countries to emphasize three "main areas" to stem the spread of #Covid19. Number 1 of those recommendations is fully-funded public health. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has not ceased nor even paused its effort to kill the Affordable Care Act.

I invite you to retrace your own steps. When did you first hear about the coronavirus? Compare your memories to the timeline of response from your federal or state government. Not only does the evidence show that our governments totally failed us, and that something is still going wrong. We cannot ignore that the Arctic is “on fire.” “May was not only the hottest May since 1880, it was 18° F. (10° C.) hotter in the Arctic than normal according to the European Union’s Climate Program Copernicus site.” (J. Cole) COVID-19 is a taste of what climate catastrophe will bring if we do not take action today.