How Coronavirus Exposes the Inherent Deficiencies of our Social Systems

How Coronavirus Exposes the Inherent Deficiencies of our Social Systems

A global pandemic is upon us, and we will not be the same after this is over. Millions will die across the world and hundreds of thousands here in the U.S. – and that’s the best-case scenario. 

It’s overwhelming, it’s scary, and it’s hard to make sense of this slow-moving tragedy that’s unfolding in front of us with barely any control. All we can do is stay inside if we have the privilege to do so and support each materially or emotionally. Be it organizing rent strikes, making food for a friend (just make sure you leave it on their porch so you limit contact), or donating handmade masks to hospitals and first responders, we all do what we can. 

The tragedy is exacerbated by the total failure of our social safety net. Burdened not only with the stress of staying safe, millions have lost their source of income and now struggle to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. COVID-19 is not the great equalizer as some might say, but the great illuminator. We’re seeing the grotesque nature of capitalism and neoliberal institutions on display like never before.  

These fault lines fall along the divisions already inherent in our society. The coronavirus pandemic is exposing just how much race and class are intertwined and how much our capitalistic system fails us. I feel it is our responsibility to not let this moment pass without introspection into what got us here. 

Many of the essential workers currently risking their lives to hold the fabric of society together — delivery drivers, supermarket clerks, and restaurant prep cooks — make less than a living wage and are predominantly BIPOC. They’re in an impossible moral bind, forced to choose between going to work sick or as an asymptomatic carrier making others sick, going to work and falling ill themselves, and making enough money to pay their rent and afford groceries. Without paid sick leave (most gig or hourly workers don’t have that benefit) these “essential” workers are risking their lives for paltry wages from multi-billion dollar corporations. 

Photo: Andrea Piacquadio.

Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the U.S., originally offered benefits to their employees that included a whopping $25 credit to buy groceries from the store and paid sick leave to those who tested positive for the Coronavirus. But, the U.S. continues to have a dearth of tests. It was only after a story from Popular Information outlining their sub-par plan went viral that the company updated its sick leave policy to include those who show symptoms of COVID-19 or are self-isolating for 14 days, but only if a medical professional deems them to be “at risk.” 

This is admittedly easier than being tested for COVID-19, but it’s clear that the owners of Kroger don’t trust their employees with the power to decide when and how to use their own sick leave. God forbid one of their employees get a cold or have allergies that they want to care for during a pandemic — wouldn’t want them thinking they have bodily autonomy after all. This tracks with the myth that low-wage workers are lazy and need to be held in line, a myth told to us by the corporations making millions on the backs of their labor. They would have us believe that some jobs (and some people) just don’t deserve respect. 

Why would we want any kind of sick person working at a grocery store, interacting with hundreds or thousands of people every day? When the pandemic is over, will we once again spread the flu and other, albeit less deadly and society-crippling, illnesses because we don’t believe the people making sure our families have food can care for themselves?

American workers aren’t trusted to decide when we need a day off. They’re not paid a living wage despite society hinging on the daily work of cashiers, janitors, security guards, and the millions of other jobs that are routinely belittled in pop culture. The coronavirus outbreak demonstrates an inherent disdain for the working class, the majority of whom are BIPOC, in Western neoliberal culture.

Social distancing is a privilege not all can afford. 

Credit: cottonbro.

A recent report in the Economic Policy Institute points out that fewer than one in five black workers and one in six hispanic workers are able to do so from home. Overall, less than 30% of American workers are able to telecommute, and those that can are among the highest 25% of earners. And those who are forced to go into work for fear of losing their jobs and much-needed wages are less likely to own personal vehicles, so they crowd into public transit risking further contagion. 

Related Post: 10 Ways You Can Help Vulnerable People and Your Communities Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

Undocumented immigrants are faced with even more complex series of decisions as they try to keep their families safe amid this crisis. They could quit their low-wage jobs, but that could mean deportation. They could get tested, but that could also mean deportation. They could do literally anything (because of the racialization of criminality in the U.S. and a police state that enforces white supremacy) and risk being arrested and thrown into ICE custody where there are known cases of coronavirus and little to no care. 

On top of all that, undocumented Americans have been left out of the already paltry aid. Most people will get a direct payment of $1,200 from the government as relief for the coronavirus outbreak, but it excludes those without Social Security numbers. Now, undocumented, tax-paying Americans are expected to continue risking thier lives to go to work and if they can’t, they won’t even get the $1,200 coming to most workers, which won’t even cover a month’s rent in most urban areas in the U.S. 

All these contexts lead us to another sobering statistic – deaths from coronavirus are disproportionately spiking in black and brown communities. 

Race and class are inextricably linked, and as the coronavirus reveals to us in deadly statistics the failings of capitalism, we must also address the inherent white supremacy therein. Anti-capitalism and anti-racism are much the same struggle.

There’s still not enough data, but with what we have, it’s clear that the pandemic is hitting BIPOC hardest. Data slowly being released from cities and counties show people who test positive for coronavirus, and in particular those dying from it, are disproportionately black. 

In Louisiana, almost 60 percent of coronavirus deaths were black, while only about a third of the state’s population. In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, black people are just 26 percent of the population, but represent almost half of all cases and 81 percent of all deaths. In Michigan, over 80 percent of those who died from the coronavirus were black, despite being only 14 percent of the population. 

New York City is the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. African American and Latino New Yorkers are approximately twice as likely to die than their white counterparts. Asian New Yorkers are also among the most likely to live in poverty and represent 23.4 percent of coronavirus cases that we know of. 

I could go on and on and on.

Anti-racism and anti-capitalism are much the same fight because race and class are intertwined in America. There is no group more vulnerable than poor BIPOC, and the coronavirus is most likely to infect, and kill, the vulnerable. 

Black and brown Americans are more likely to work those “essential,” high-risk, low-paying jobs than white Americans, and are therefore more likely to come in contact with the coronavirus. Those working low-wage jobs are more likely to need to take public transportation, now introducing more points of contact. 

Credit: Mick Haupt.

The poor and BIPOC (a very circle-like venn diagram) suffer from medical conditions that would put them at higher risk of facing coronavirus hospitalization, and many of those are related to air pollution. Poor communities of color in the mid-atlantic region are exposed to a particularly high amount of air pollution as a result of racial redlining and environmental racism. A recent Harvard study directly points to a link between air pollution and COVID-19 death rates. 

But what about our most vulnerable communities of all? The incarcerated and houseless populations?

Well, a detainee on Rikers Island told Jacobin Magazine about his experience and detailed that his symptoms were ignored, he was denied testing then quarantined with two others in an unsanitary housing unit with no hygiene products. Once finally moved to a solo quarantine and tested, he was told that if he tested positive, he would likely stay on Rikers where they were already mistreating him and mishandling the outbreak as a whole. The prison system in the U.S. is meant to break people, not care for them. It’s a humanitarian crisis that so many still remain behind bars. At least 167 inmates and 137 staff members have tested positive in the Rikers Island prison complex, and it’s likely many more. Because we’ve racialized criminality (and made blackness a crime in and of itself), most of those held in the prison system are black and latino. 

The houseless (As an aside – these people do have a home, they have a city and a community they care for. They have family. Many have jobs. They just can’t pay rent. Hence houseless rather than homeless) are not only not able to take shelter or stay inside because they have no place to go, but many live in unsanitary groups and lack any ability to see a doctor. They are most likely to be exposed and the least likely to get care. Because race and class are intertwined, 40 percent of those experiencing houselessness are black. 

The coronavirus pandemic shows exactly how white supremacy is baked into our institutions and how capitalism continues to fail us. 

We’re facing a massive system that chews people up and spits them out and reinforces inequality. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and besides taking to the streets – which is highly discouraged right now – it’s easy to feel helpless. 

Credit: Malcolm Garret.

But, at the risk of sounding naive, there is hope. The first step is bringing critiques of capitalism and our white supremacist country into mainstream media. We’re already seeing that happen, but let’s push it further. Let’s not stop wondering whether it’s fair for someone’s healthcare to be linked to their job once most people are back to work. Let’s continue to question the things we’ve been taught to take for granted. The way things are aren’t working. We need bold, systematic change. 

Related Post: The Kindness Pandemic

We can start by ensuring that every person and company that tried to use this pandemic to their advantage is held accountable. Four senators, Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Dianne Fienstein (D-Calif.), and Richard Burr (R-N.C.), all sold hundreds of thousands of dollars in stocks after a January briefing about the oncoming pandemic and how it would crash the economy. Sen. Loeffler went so far as to invest in a company that makes ventilators ahead of the crisis. Maybe it’s time we look at the system that incentivizes people to act in such craven, selfish ways. 

I don’t know how to explain empathy. I don’t know how to make people care about suffering, and I certainly don’t know if it’s worth writing a five-page, single spaced blog post in the face of a system that deeply, structurally, and totally does not care about me. But I have to do something. 

The first step is acknowledging the problem. Acknowledging that our very systems are making us sick, keeping us down, and doing so for the benefit of the very few. 

Then, start looking into ways to undermine that system. Check in with your neighbors, your coworkers. Look for how you can support each other. Find the ways you can use your collective force to do good – anything from striking to protect your at-risk coworkers from being forced back into work to pooling your money to help houseless people around you. Or you could make art. Or become closer with your friends. Or just focus on getting through this with as much empathy and knowledge as you can. 

These are overwhelming times. But we can’t let this moment pass without understanding what got us here. We can’t go back to the old normal. Because if we do, we risk doing this all over again, but worse, when the next pandemic hits, or when the global climate crisis makes certain areas of the planet uninhabitable, or when we face a global climate refugee crisis that our systems woefully unprepared for. 

Stay safe. Stay open. Stay empathetic. We can beat them, together. 

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Cover image credit: cottonbro.

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