Who's on Watch? Q&A with BGA Policy Analyst Joann Wong

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Better Government Association is shifting gears to help inform the public about the government's role and actions during the crisis. We (virtually) sat down with BGA policy analyst Joann Wong to ask her how she is responding to the coronavirus.

Tell folks about your pre-coronavirus work for the BGA?

I joined BGA in June 2019 after serving as the health policy analyst at the Respiratory Health Association. I came from a background of public health and dove into everything from redistricting to gambling to campaign contributions. I research current or proposed policies, analyze their impact and effectiveness, and consider all possible policy outcomes. I then use that evaluation and an examination of existing best practices to craft policy recommendations. I also track hundreds of bills relevant to the BGA mission, and coordinate the BGA’s legislative outreach efforts.

How are you doing things differently in light of the pandemic?

I had to pause a lot of work from the legislative session. Most notably, BGA had been testifying before the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform on potential ethics reforms measures. Because the General Assembly is not in session, the commission missed the March 31 deadline for its report, and it's unclear whether they'll take it up again, or more generally, when the legislature will be back in session and what policies and issues it will consider in an abbreviated session. Other initiatives and projects that the policy team has been working on have also had to be put on hold. Luckily, some of the legislation I had been monitoring prior to the outbreak has actually dovetailed with policies the state may consider adopting in this time of remote governing and uncertain in-person elections (e.g., measures to make public meetings more accessible or facilitate the vote-by-mail process).

What are you looking for in how governments respond to COVID-19?

I'm interested to see what their priorities will be when the General Assembly is able to go back to work, and what will happen to the issues that may fall to the wayside—there is the potential for lots of good policy change (ahem, ethics reform) to fall through the cracks. The legislature will likely want to immediately take up essential issues such as the budget and recovery relief, but will there be a special session to deal with other legislation?

Given the importance and the far-reaching implications of the upcoming November election, I'm especially interested in what can be done to prepare in the event that the pandemic is still ongoing. More generally, we're watching how state and local governments respond to the state of emergency in terms of FOIA and the Open Meetings Act. Later on, we'll be interested in how governments will manage the recovery. Whose relief gets priority? What stakeholders get a say, in what capacity, and on what timeline? The pandemic has magnified and deepened structural inequalities—how do we address persistent issues like affordable housing and access to healthcare moving forward?

What government responses to COVID-19 have surprised you? Which ones haven't?

I've been surprised by how little guidance and coordination has come from the federal level, and how responses have varied so much state by state. I'm concerned with the lack of consistency and coordination; the levels of stringency vary from state to state, and so has the timeline on which measures have been adopted. This obviously complicates the recovery process, but it muddles enforcement as well. Department of Defense employees have a mandatory 14-day quarantine before they return to work if they have traveled out of town. How do neighboring states with different policies (if they have them at all) treat essential workers who live in one state but work in another?

Additionally, I've been surprised by the level of conflict among our branches of government. The system of checks and balances is critical to our democracy's integrity, and especially in times of great crisis, we cannot allow any one branch of government to unilaterally make policy and structural changes. But I also understand the optics from a public perspective—why isn't the government working together to ensure safety at all cost in this time of crisis? I've been fascinated by how the primary elections have been handled state by state, with public outcry for postponing elections, governors struggling with their response, and the involvement of courts all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Who are you most worried about during this outbreak?

It goes without saying that my thoughts are with those afflicted by this virus and their families, as well as those working around the clock on the front lines: all the nurses, doctors, hospital cleaning staff, bus drivers, grocery store workers, and everyone else selflessly working to keep others cared for and safe. I also have many friends in the food service and hospitality industry who are now without work, and still others who are teachers adjusting to instructing and caring for their students from home.

But personally, I've been most worried about my sister, who has a low-functioning disability and is nonverbal. She has a tendency to touch everything and then immediately touch her face, rub her eyes, or put her fingers in her mouth. We have family and friends in Hong Kong and keep up with Asian news sources, so even before Illinois' shelter-in-place order, we had been keeping my sister almost entirely at home.

Now that the recommendation has come out that people should wear masks in public, I fear for her safety and the safety of my family even just taking my sister out on walks. Like many other folks with autism, my sister has sensory processing issues. One way that manifests itself is in her refusal to tolerate anything that covers her head or face; she will immediately take off any hat or scarf you try to put on her. I can't imagine that she would tolerate a mask, and I'm scared that someone will have something to say to her and my family about it; it's unnerving to think that we're potentially weighing the need to maintain her physical and mental health against her safety.

My family is extremely fortunate that we have not had to scramble to find options for her care during this time: my mom is able to work from home, and even if that weren't the case, I could easily step in. Even so, I worry about my mom and dad, who are now with my sister around the clock, juggling her care with their jobs, regular responsibilities, and constant anxiety without any real break.

I'm worried about people like my sister, whose routines have been disrupted and who are struggling to understand what's going on or communicate how they're feeling about it all. They may be missing school, work, therapy, or more simply: their friends. And who can't relate with that? I'm also worried about all those family members and caretakers like my parents, from the ones who are now finding themselves juggling everything without respite, to those who can't work from home and are without care options.

It's an incredibly tough situation, and I hope this inspires us to figure out how to strengthen our education and healthcare systems to meet the needs of people with disabilities and special needs always, but especially during circumstances like these, and how to make sure families and caretakers feel supported and connected.

As the BGA adapts to the growing challenges facing our community. We want to make sure we are covering the stories that matter most to you. If you have questions about the government's response to the outbreak, visit the "What The Gov?" section of the website. You ask. We investigate.

Joann Wong serves as BGA's Policy Analyst. She is responsible for conducting research, developing advocacy strategies and policy positions, and conducting legislative advocacy in support of transparency, accountability, and efficiency at all levels of government.