This time last year, Western Massachusetts was focused on continuing its incredible momentum. Entrepreneurs were launching new ventures, long-term investments were bearing fruit and public-private partnerships were helping address key challenges we faced. And then, COVID-19 brought everything to a standstill, inflicting pain and hardship throughout our community. Even now, as we see a light at the end of the tunnel, we know so many are still struggling.
I’m hopeful that the rollout of vaccines will slow infection rates, save lives and increase employment. But this past year has also opened our eyes to other ways that we can – and must – emerge from this crisis stronger than before.
As we approach this next stage of the Pioneer Valley’s evolution, we can’t simply go back to the way things were. We must recognize that some developments – from vast digital acceleration to a long-overdue reckoning with systemic racism – will, rightly, be with us for a long time. So, we must summon the same sense of resourcefulness and focus that got us through 2020 to develop creative solutions, build new connections and, most of all, demonstrate compassion in every decision we make.
At MassMutual, for example, we were proud to help the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts launch its COVID-19 Response Fund, but knew we could do more to aid the pandemic response. Our purpose is to help people secure their future and protect the ones they love, and we wanted to provide our health care heroes with the peace of mind of financial protection. Employees at places like Baystate and Mercy Hospital were working incredibly hard to keep our community safe and healthy, at tremendous personal sacrifice.
So, we moved quickly and got creative. The result was HealthBridge, our free life insurance program for health care workers on the front lines of COVID-19, which we were able to launch in a matter of weeks thanks to our ongoing investment in digital technology. We are now protecting more than 10,000 people with this coverage (and we’d love to protect even more – please visit MassMutual.com/HealthBridge if you or a loved one may be eligible).
Many others also approached the pandemic with creative can-do-ism, including the New North Citizens’ Council – our partners on the Live Mutual Project in Springfield.
The citizens’ council’s constituents serve as community advocates – but not all of them have devices or experience using computers. New North Citizens’ Council stepped in to fill those gaps, providing technology and support to ensure they could meet virtually with their constituents and continue to help families in need. For example, some families were struggling to stay in their homes, so the citizens’ council connected them with resources that provide rent and mortgage financial assistance.
In short, the New North Citizens’ Council used creativity to meet urgent community needs while staying connected to the people they serve – delivering compassionate solutions that will have a positive impact for years to come.
This type of approach will serve us well as we rebuild sectors that have faced challenges for years. Consider early childhood education. A strong, equitable early childhood system benefits our world in significant ways. It gives parents an affordable childcare option so they can stay in the workforce, and it gives young people access to education during a critical phase in their development.
Yet even before the pandemic, many childcare providers had difficulties sustaining their businesses. Many working families were unable to find quality programs they could both access and afford. Those issues are often worse for families of color – the same communities hit hardest by COVID-19.
This is why I have joined the Business Coalition for Early Childhood Education as a co-chair to promote a new social compact for early childhood education – one that acknowledges it as a key driver of equity for students of all backgrounds and as a necessary component of our economic infrastructure.
In fact, the recovery is also an opportunity to improve several aspects of our infrastructure – especially those that connect us. For example, I applaud the ongoing efforts of state lawmakers to provide funding and additional support to the Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s Last Mile program, which brings broadband to communities in the commonwealth that lack adequate service, many of which are in the Pioneer Valley.
Similarly, we have an opportunity to make progress on the east-west passenger rail line. I was pleased to see the final state report on the rail line offered a path forward on the project and that authorization for potential state funding was included in the recent transportation bond bill. Choosing to invest in greener and more convenient transportation will make the Pioneer Valley’s lifestyle and affordability more accessible and attract talented people to the region.
Possibilities like this make me hopeful for our future – but of course, we still have a long way to go as we rebuild from this crisis. People went through a lot in 2020, and many are still suffering. They’ll need our unwavering support in the weeks, months, and years ahead. We’ll need to draw from the same well of compassion that led people to donate to recovery funds, sew masks for their neighbors and show support for frontline health care workers.
Fortunately, for the people of the Pioneer Valley, compassion and resilience are never in short supply. This region has seen tough days before and chose to reinvent every time. It’s something MassMutual shares with our home community – a history of responding with strength and hope in times of crisis. Together, we’ll once again chart a new way forward.
Roger Crandall is chairman, president and CEO of MassMutual. To learn more about MassMutual, go online to massmutual.com.